Attack surprised America and changed every American
The world war that engulfed Europe was tugging at a reluctant United States. Because of concerns over Japan's aggressions, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was moved from California to Pearl Harbor in the spring of 1940, and a military buildup was under way.
Still, the war seemed distant. That changed overnight for Hawaii, the United States and the world. The country will remember that date of infamy on Friday, the 71st anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack that drew America into World War II.
Jimmy Lee, then an 11-year-old who lived on a farm near Pearl Harbor, built tin boats with his friends and went fishing, crabbing and clamming near the Navy base.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he and his parents hid in the hills amid rumors that the Japanese had landed.
"Scared" is how Lee remembers feeling.
Martial law was declared. A Japanese family living near the Lees simply disappeared in those confusing days. And a young Lee would find himself challenged at bayonet point for breaking curfew.
Ray Emory was a seaman first class onboard the USS Honolulu. "You got up in the morning, and you took your shoes off and you scrubbed down the decks and just basically maintained the ship," Emory recalled of life before the attack. "If it needed a little paint here and there, you painted it. You'd go out to sea and have drills like fueling at sea and gunnery practice."
Emory was reading a newspaper article about rising tensions with Japan when that nation's planes struck. He spent the next 90 minutes firing a .50-caliber machine gun at attacking planes -- including one that blew up in front of him.
"The damn thing stopped in midair," Emory said. "It lit up like a Christmas tree and went straight down. It didn't glide anywhere, just stopped, and the prop came off the nose and kept going through the air."
Seven decades later, Emory, now 91, said not a day goes by that he doesn't think about Dec. 7, 1941. "That was so pounded into my head that day, the things that happened, that through the war you just always go back and think of that day," the Kahala resident said.
That turning point is the theme of this year's observance at the USS Arizona Memorial.
Between 2,500 and 3,000 people are expected at the National Park Service and Navy commemoration at the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center titled "Coming of Age -- From Innocence to Valor," honoring those who served on that fateful day and recognizing the civilians who witnessed the attack, including 49 who were killed.
The Visitor Center will open at 6:30 a.m.
A moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. will mark the time of the attack. A destroyer will render honors to the sunken USS Arizona and its 1,177 dead, and the Hawaii Air National Guard will conduct a "missing man" flyover. Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, will speak.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. More than 400,000 Americans and 60 million people altogether died in World War II.
This year's Dec. 7 commemoration "is kind of a recognition of how these young people were transformed, in an instant, almost, once the war begins," said Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the Arizona Memorial.
"Those that served throughout the Pacific faced some very serious challenges," Martinez said.
That applied to the U.S. population as a whole as well. "The rest of the nation had planned for other things," Martinez said. "They thought they'd be going to college, they thought they'd be getting married, they thought they'd be getting jobs. The Great Depression was easing and there was a future, and that future was put on hold for four long years."
The 3,000 people expected for this year's Dec. 7 commemoration falls short of the more than 5,000 who turned out last year for the 70th anniversary, which also had 135 World War II veterans and saw the last official duties of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, now disbanded due to falling numbers and failing health.
About 75 World War II vets and 50 to 55 Pearl Harbor survivors are expected this year, officials said.
For those who remain, the sights, sounds and memories of the Japanese attack -- which many expected in the Philippines or elsewhere, but not in Hawaii -- are unforgettable, the experience life-changing.
Lee, who was 11 and whose family's farm had chicken, pigs, cattle and ducks, remembers watching torpedo bombers making runs on Pearl Harbor, and hiding in a shallow cave in the hills with his parents when word spread that the Japanese were attacking.
His friend Toshi, who was Japanese, lived nearby. After the attack, Lee and his family returned to their farm, and Toshi and his family were gone.
"The whole family -- everybody was gone," said Lee, now 82. "We don't know (where). There were rumors that the parents were spies."
The Lee family dug a bomb shelter in the yard and had to scramble down there with gas masks when air raid sirens went off almost every week.
Even with a curfew, Lee said he and his friends would sneak into the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor to fish and hunt for crabs, always on the lookout for sentries.
The 6 a.m. curfew was a particular problem on the farm, where the cows were milked early in the morning.
"The thing is, here comes these sentries, and 'Halt, who goes there!' type of thing," Lee recalled. "They don't know who we are, but the idea is that they would challenge you, little kids, challenge us with a bayonet, until they got to know us better."
Lee, who went on to serve in the military, volunteers at the Arizona Memorial visitor center, sharing his story with tourists and speaking to schoolchildren.
Emory, the USS Honolulu crewman, served in seven Pacific invasions in World War II. He has devoted the past several decades to identifying Pearl Harbor casualties buried as "unknown" at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
So far, his research has led to the identification of nine Pearl Harbor casualties. "And I've got about 100 (more possible identifications) in the mill," said Emory, who will be recognized at Friday's commemoration for his efforts.