PEARL HARBOR (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than 4,000 people, including hundreds of Pearl Harbor survivors, World War II veterans and their families, gathered at Kilo Pier on Wednesday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack with a ceremony filled with hearty applause, moments of reflection and calls to "never forget."
"We remember Pearl Harbor," said Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. "It was a day of gallantry and unquestionable heroism, even as it was a day of sacrifice and immeasurable loss. The scars remain and we see them all around us. These scars remind of us our history and how America responded with conspicuous valor."
The commemoration ceremony, which included a moment of silence, a fighter jet flyover, and wreath presentations, began just before 8 a.m. to coincide with the exact moments on Dec. 7, 1941 that Japanese warplanes bombarded naval ships in Pearl Harbor and targeted other military installations on Oahu.
Attendees filled the venue where the ceremony was held to capacity, and their seats were placed so they looked out at the USS Arizona Memorial.
In a poignant moment early in the ceremony, the USS Halsey passed by the Arizona Memorial to honor the lives lost in the attack. Attendees erupted in applause when USS Arizona survivor Donald Stratton took to the stage to return those honors.
World War II veteran Kenzo Kanemoto, 94, called the ceremony "stupendous" and said he was thankful to have had the opportunity attend and be recognized for his service.
He added that the message of the day is one of peace -- and reconciliation. "If you win, you still lose a lot," he said.
A fitting tribute
Organizers started planning more than a year ago for the significant Pearl Harbor anniversary, noting that this is perhaps the last opportunity to pay tribute in a large way to a dwindling number of Pearl Harbor and World War II survivors.
"One of the objectives of this was to preserve this history," said retired Adm. Thomas Fargo, chairman of Pearl Harbor commemoration events.
Fargo, former commander of the Pacific Fleet, added, "The theme is about helping future generations of Americans understand the kind of commitment and sacrifice that Americans have always put forth to ensure the basic freedoms that we all value. Everybody can take a moment and reflect on this. We're doing it because we recognize this is an opportunity to honor them."
In addition to those gathering at Pearl Harbor to mark the event, thousands more watched it live from the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Waikiki Beach, and online worldwide.
"It's our last hurrah," said Pearl Harbor survivor John Mathrusse. "It's gratifying. It's an honor."
Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, told Pearl Harbor survivors and World War II veterans Wednesday that the commemoration was about acknowledging their service.
"We remember your lost shipmates. We salute your service and your sacrifice," he said. "Your lives changed on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 and after that day, you would change the world forever."
Near the end of the ceremony, the crowd offered a lengthy standing ovation to honor Pearl Harbor survivors and World War II veterans. The moment left some in tears.
Pearl Harbor survivor Tom Berg said the ceremony was moving, but also uplifting and positive.
"I think it's important to commemorate the event," said Berg, 94, who served on board the USS Tennessee.
His wife, Lesa, added that it's doubly touching to see how many Pearl Harbor survivors made it to this year's ceremony. "Most live people don't even live to be 75 and this is 75 years later," she said.
The surprise Pearl Harbor attack on the morning of Dec. 7 dealt America a historic blow. And when the last Japanese fighter planes left Hawaii skies – two hours and 20 minutes after the attack had started – 2,403 Americans were dead, the Pacific Fleet was in ruins, and the United States was thrown into war.
Three quarters of a century later, said Gov. David Ige, the focus is on honoring the survivors and remembering those who didn't make it. "The 75th anniversary are really about honoring the courage and the action of these heroes," he said.
Among the VIP attendees at the Pearl Harbor ceremony: Four of the five remaining survivors of the USS Arizona.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the naval warship that would become synonymous with the attack took four direct hits from Japanese aircraft.
The final resting place for hundreds of servicemen killed in Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona sustained the worst casualties among the vessels in Battleship Row. Some 1,177 USS Arizona sailors and Marines were killed, and scores more were wounded.
"We came home, got married, had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and lived a big life," said USS Arizona survivor Lou Conter, 95, of Wisconsin. "They lost theirs immediately and they're the ones that should be called the heroes."
'A great honor'
Scores of World War II veterans and their families from across the country started arriving in Honolulu over the weekend, including on board a special commemoration flight from Los Angeles carrying 120 Pearl Harbor survivors, World War II veterans and their companions.
"This is a great honor and I'm proud to be here," said veteran Art Staymates, shortly after arriving in the islands.
Pearl Harbor survivor AJ Dunn, 94, said it was surreal to be back in Hawaii.
Dunn was just 19 – and assigned to the USS Ogala – on Dec. 7, 1941. Just before 8 a.m., he'd finished mailing Christmas presents to his family and was headed back to Pearl Harbor when the attack started. "The taxi driver was so shook up that he didn't even stop or get his money. We just jumped out and started running to our ships. As we ran, the Japanese planes were firing at us," Dunn told his hometown newspaper in 2006, for the 65th anniversary of the attack.
He continued, "We were wearing our whites and were easy to see. I saw this plane make a bank and I knew what he was after. I saw that big rising sun. We jumped into a ditch. Shells were flying."
By the time the attack was over, 18 American ships had been greatly damaged or sunk, 300 military aircraft were destroyed or damaged. And in addition to the military casualties, 49 civilians were dead. All this in a place described just seven months earlier by the War Department as impregnable to foreign attack – "the strongest fortress in the world."
In the hours and days that followed the attack, servicemembers and civilians continued searching for survivors and undertaking the grim task of retrieving the bodies of those who had been killed.
By noon of Dec. 7, martial law was declared in Hawaii.
And on Dec. 8, 1941, President Roosevelt addressed Congress: "Yesterday," the president said, "December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." America was at war.
Remembering those who served
Pearl Harbor survivor Sterling Cale, who turned 95 last week, had just gotten off duty on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor began. "I came down through the main gate, saluted the master of arms, said, 'I'm going home,' then looked out and saw the planes," he said.
"I never had a chance to go home."
Reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the attack, Cale said last week he was upbeat and positive. Commemorating the attack, he said, allows Americans to honor the past but also move forward. "I just hope my great-grandson doesn't have to go through all the things I had to go through," he added.
Pearl Harbor survivor Al Rodrigues had a similar message.
He said until recently he never talked about his World War II service with his family. His grandchildren didn't even know he was a veteran. That all changed when he started volunteering at the USS Arizona memorial. He realized that keeping his experiences to himself wasn't benefiting anyone. This Wednesday, he added, perhaps the best way to commemorate the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is to "remember all those brave servicemen and women who help protect you."
"I want everyone to remember," agreed Denton "Wally" Walling, who was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor. On the morning of the attack, he was working in the observation tower at Pearl Harbor – 180 feet in the air with a clear view of Battleship Row.
When the first Japanese warplanes headed toward Pearl Harbor, Walling and his colleagues assumed they were American and putting on an elaborate military exercise. But "when the bombs started pouring out, we knew we were in war," Walling said. "It changed my life."
Mobile users: To see a timeline of the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath, click here.