Survivors, families remember Pearl Harbor attack
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii -- A few dozen graying Pearl Harbor survivors observed a moment of silence Friday in honor of their comrades who perished in the Japanese bombing of Oahu 66 years ago.
Wearing aloha shirts and orchid flower leis, the veterans stood on a pier overlooking the sunken hull of the USS Arizona and saluted the flag as a sailor sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Survivors of each of the nine battleships bombed in the attack took turns setting wreaths before life preservers bearing the names of their ships.
"We're honoring the people who were killed. We're not here for ourselves, we're here for them," said George A. Smith, 83, who was on board the USS Oklahoma the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Overall, 2,388 Americans died in the attacks, including some 900 still entombed in the Arizona.
Hawaii Air National Guard helicopters flew over the harbor in "missing man" formation in honor of those lost. B-2 stealth bombers currently deployed to Guam from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri performed an additional flyby.
The crowd of about 2,000 honored the survivors with a standing ovation and several minutes of loud applause.
Smith, of Olympia, Wash., was standing watch on the Oklahoma when he saw planes darting through the sky over the harbor.
"One plane came in, circled, came right down to us. The guy opened the hatch to his plane and dropped his torpedo, waved at me and took off," Smith said. "The next thing I knew, there was a big explosion."
He was able to jump overboard, just avoiding being squashed by the capsizing battleship, and then swam ashore.
Smith was among 18 survivors of the Oklahoma who came to Hawaii to help dedicate a new memorial to the vessel after the main ceremony. The Oklahoma lost 429 sailors and Marines -- more than any battleship in the harbor except the Arizona.
The $1.2 million monument includes 429 white marble standards, each with the name of a fallen sailor or Marine, surrounded by black granite panels etched with a silhouette of the battleship and notable quotes from World War II-era figures that were selected by some of the survivors.
The Oklahoma was hit with the first torpedo of the morning assault. It capsized after being struck by eight more, trapping 400 men in its overturned hull. About 30 of the trapped men were later rescued by Pearl Harbor Navy Yard workers who hammered their way through the ship's metal.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Tucker McHugh, who co-chaired the USS Oklahoma Memorial Committee, said he thinks the memorial will bring some sense of closure.
"I think there's been a void in the minds and hearts of these shipmates that their shipmates were never honored with a lasting memorial," McHugh said. "Total closure might come when the last survivor passes away and they're all reunited together."
Retired Navy Adm. Tom Fargo, vice-chair of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund, an organization set up to raise money for a new Arizona memorial visitor's center, said it was vital to remember the events of 66 years ago.
"We have a solemn obligation to protect and preserve for history the sacrifices and lessons of Pearl Harbor and the war in the Pacific for generations to come," Fargo said.
The existing visitor's center, across the harbor from the Arizona memorial itself, houses a museum and theaters where the public can learn about the attack. Visitors must stop at the center to board ferries to the memorial.
But the land underneath is sinking, creating the need for a new facility on more stable ground. Space also is a concern -- the center sees an estimated 1.5 million visitors a year, far more than what memorial operators expected when the current building opened in 1980.
Fundraisers have collected $32 million of the $50 million for the new center. The National Park Service hopes to break ground next summer and complete construction about two years later.