75 Years Ago was “A Day to Live in Infamy”

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Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.
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On December 7, 1941, Japan’s deadly attack catalyzed a nation, shattering America’s sense of invincibility and pulling the country into war. Today the site is a symbol of service, science, and healing.

It’s still there. Seventy-five years later, the U.S.S. Arizona is still resting on the seafloor in Pearl Harbor, asleep in 40 feet of gray, silty water.

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It’s been there since the morning of December 7, 1941, when 353 Japanese planes mounted a surprise assault on American naval forces stationed in Hawaii. The attack killed 2,403 United States personnel, injured 1,178, drew the United States into World War II, and altered the course of history forever.

Nearly a thousand of the battleship’s 1,177 servicemen are still entombed in the Arizona’s slowly rusting hull. The number of living survivors has dwindled to five. Yet the ship’s enduring existence offers a tangible assurance—a promise that the day of infamy will never be forgotten.

There will be no shortage of commemorative events this week, from reunions and wreath layings to concerts and parades. But the Arizona is still the anchor of the site: a symbol of sacrifice, a source of scientific inquiry, and, increasingly, a site of reconciliation.

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Pearl Harbor survivor Dick Girocco is one of the last men standing.

During the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by the Japanese, Mr. Girocco was one of about 60,000 military personnel stationed on Oahu. The attack claimed the lives of 2,403 Americans, most on ships that were bombed at the Pearl Harbor naval base.

Today, he is one of only seven known Pearl Harbor survivors still living in Hawaii, and the last who still reports for duty on the Ford Island part of the base where he served as a Navy flight engineer during the attack. His present volunteer assignment: sitting at a museum desk and telling visitors what it was like on the day that propelled America into World War II.

“It was the luck of the draw why I’m still here,” said Mr. Girocco, 95 years old. “I was very fortunate, and others weren’t. That’s it.”

Mr. Girocco is getting company as more than 100 other survivors converge on Hawaii to attend the 75th anniversary commemoration that began this week. Four of the five survivors of the bombing of the USS Arizona, in which 1,177 crewmen were killed, are also scheduled to attend.

But that is a fraction of the attendance at milestone events in decades past, when upward of 3,000 would turn out. With most remaining veterans in their 90s, organizers of the commemoration have billed this as the last big gathering of Pearl Harbor survivors. Indeed, one group of 14 severely infirm veterans called this trip their last wish, according to an organizer of their travel.

“Clearly, the number of survivors is dwindling next to nothing,” said Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “The next big milestone is the 100, and there will be no survivors.”

That’s why this year’s survivors are being lavished with VIP treatment. They are getting floats on which to ride for Wednesday’s parade, and they will be the center of attention at banquets and other events throughout the week. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he plans to personally thank each one he meets.

“I plan to go up and give them a hug,” Mr. Caldwell said last week. “We are so proud of what they did for our country.”

Indeed, the Pearl Harbor survivors are getting attention almost wherever they go here. Hula dancers and local dignitaries greeted a planeload of 70 survivors when they landed at Honolulu International Airport on Saturday.

On his Hawaiian Airlines flight from Oakland, Calif., on Friday, 94-year-old Jon “Chief Johnny” Gordon was honored by a flight attendant who led the cabin in a round of applause for him. Mr. Gordon, who was aboard the USS San Francisco as chief commissary steward during the attack, attributed the praise to the significance of that day.

“That was when we were called to save the world,” said Mr. Gordon, of Walnut Creek, Calif.

While many of the veterans are returning after decades, Mr. Girocco relives the attack three days a week, as a volunteer at the Pacific Aviation Museum, which has a display of World War II fighter planes and related artifacts on Ford Island. A frail great-great grandfather who walks with a cane, he said he and other members of a squadron for amphibious landing planes were working inside Hangar 54 that Sunday morning in 1941 when they heard the sound of planes dive-bombing outside.

“We thought it was our guys playing with us,” Mr. Girocco recalled while working a shift at the museum Saturday, adding the pilots would sometimes drop fake flour-filled sacks on them as a prank. “Someone said, ‘Those idiots are at it again.’ ”

But when they ran outside, he said, they could see the planes were Japanese Zeros. “Then it became survival,” he said. “We ran away from the hangar, and took cover in a 6-foot-deep ditch.”

The sailors huddled in the ditch as the Japanese planes rained bombs down on Pearl Harbor. “What I remember the most was the noise and concussion,” he said. “When the Arizona exploded, it actually shook the ground like an explosion.”

The attack took part in two waves. When the first wave ended after an hour, Mr. Girocco said he got out of the ditch and headed back to his hangar. But 15 minutes later, the Zeros returned, and the young sailor was thrown up against the hangar by the force of a large explosion when the USS Shaw was bombed nearby.

He and the other sailors ran back to the ditch, but this time he was spotted by a Japanese pilot flying low. “I could see his face, and a leather helmet with fur around it,” Mr. Girocco said. “He lined up over the ditch to make a strafing run at us, but fortunately someone fired a .50 caliber gun at him, and he veered off.”

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Mr. Girocco, who remained in the Navy for 20 years, moved from California to Hawaii in 1987 and found himself driving over to Pearl Harbor to reminisce. About five years ago, he accepted an offer from the aviation museum to tell visitors his story and sign autographs. “It’s much more meaningful to hear it from the horse’s mouth,” said Ian Birnie, a docent at the museum who lived through the Japanese attack as a 6-year-old boy in Honolulu.

Visitors go away impressed. “We appreciate the sacrifice these boys made,” 60-year-old Richard Eckard, of Icard, N.C., said after shaking the veteran’s hand Saturday. “I feel indebted to them.”

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