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Witnesses to one of the worst attacks on America return to Pearl Harbor for first time in 75 years

Pearl Harbor survivor Henry N. J. Lee shakes hands with Bryson Brown shortly before the beginning of a ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to commemorate the attack 75 years ago, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. Seated near Lee are Pearl Harbor survivors Lou Conter, center, and Fred Smith.

BONNIE GROWER / SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2016

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii — For some of these veterans, it was their first return to Hawaii in 75 years. For many – the youngest in their mid-90s and a few more than a century old – it will likely be the last time they return to Pearl Harbor, first-hand witnesses to one of America’s greatest military disasters.

Dozens of Pearl Harbor survivors and World War II veterans gathered Wednesday for a commemoration recognizing their valor on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese aircraft decimated America’s mighty fleet of battleships moored in the harbor. Simultaneous attacks on Army and Marine Corps airfields across Oahu wiped out most of the fighter planes on the island.

An audience of roughly 1,000 people filled a covered pier that overlooks the USS Arizona Memorial. At one point the throng of visitors rose and gave the veterans long and thunderous applause. Countless others watched the event being live-streamed by the National Park Service.

“To America’s World War II patriots here and watching at home: we will never forget your courage under considerable fire and seemingly insurmountable odds,” said Adm. Harry Harris, U.S. Pacific Command commander. “Because of you, our future remains bright. We owe you an immeasurable debt, and we can’t thank you enough for answering the call to duty when lady liberty needed it the most.”

Harris garnered his own minute-long standing ovation with an allusion toward San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began going down on one knee during the national anthem this season as a protest to racial injustice.

“You can bet that the men and women we honor today and those died that fateful morning 75 years ago never took a knee and never failed to stand whenever they heard our national anthem being played,” Harris said.

The “110-minute chaotic attack” left 2,403 dead and almost 1,200 more wounded, he said. All eight of the Navy’s battleships moored in Pearl Harbor just off Ford Island were damaged, with four sunk.

Six were repaired and entered the Pacific war. Only one, the USS West Virginia, was present at Tokyo Bay when Japan formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.

None of the sailors, Marines and soldiers on Oahu that day “knew it would be the last moment of peace for almost four years,” Harris said.

Among the many caught by surprise was Cecil Hollingshead, 96, a former Marine who watched the ceremony from wheelchair near the front row. He was stationed at Kaneohe, on the opposite side of the island from Pearl Harbor.

“I stepped out of the barracks on my way to breakfast at the PX,” he said. “When I looked to my left, there was a young man walking down the sidewalk and an airplane strafing him, with bullets spitting at his feet. That was my introduction to war.”

Hollingshead headed to the armory and equipped himself with a submachine gun, taking a position at the edge of the runway tarmac.

“When the second [wave] came through, we fired at them,” he said.

“After that was over with, we tried to set up a machine gun emplacement and so forth for any following attack, but that didn’t come.”

Another Marine, Gordon C. Sage, 95, was shining his shoes aboard the USS Maryland in Battleship Row. He’d planned to go ashore that sunny Sunday.

“I felt the movement of the ship, and it was the attack on Pearl,” Sage said. When he got to a window to look out, “there was the Oklahoma rolling over on its side.”

A recent transfer to the Maryland from the West Virginia, Sage did not yet have a designated battle station. “I went out and joined the gun crew and passed ammunition to the gun crew,” he said.

The scars of that momentous day remain 75 years later, Harris said.

“We see them all around us,” he said. “The battleships USS Arizona and USS Utah are still entombed in the waters behind me. The USS Oklahoma Memorial. The bullet holes in the buildings at Ford Island and Hickam Field. And on the bodies and in the minds of the veterans with us here today. These scars remind us of our history and how America responded with conspicuous valor.

“Today we have a precious opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a patriot, to reflect on what it means to be a nation tested by war and to reflect on both the costs and the blessings of liberty.”
 

Olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson

 

Survivors from the USS Arizona, which was destroyed and sunk during the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack by the Japanese, chat with guests before the start of a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the disaster, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
WYATT OLSON/STARS AND STRIPES

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