It was 75 years ago that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into World War II and killing 2,403 people while wounding another 1,178.
The day was remembered all over the country.
During ceremonies at the naval base in Hawaii, thousands gathered as a few survivors joined active-duty servicemen and women and National Park Service rangers in dedicating wreaths to those killed
Survivor Jim Downing of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said he returns to Hawaii for the anniversary commemorations to be with his shipmates.
“We get together and have a great time and compare our stories,” he said.
Downing said surprise, fear, anger and pride overcame him as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Then a newlywed sailor, he recalled a Japanese plane flying low and slow in his direction as he rushed to his battleship from his home after hearing explosions and learning of the attack on the radio.
“When he got the right angle, he banked over, turned his machine guns loose,” Downing, now 103, said in an interview at a Waikiki hotel. “But fortunately he didn’t bank far enough so it went right over my head.”
The next aviator might have better aim, Downing remembers thinking. And with nowhere to hide, “I was afraid,” he said.
His ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by nine torpedoes.
“We were sinking, and everything above the water line was on fire,” he said.
Downing said he felt proud while watching sailors balance the capsizing ship by allowing water to seep in. The tactic let the giant battleship slide into mud below.
The West Virginia lost 106 men. Downing, who also served as the ship’s postmaster, spent two hours fighting fires and checking the name tags of the dead so he could write their families personal notes about how they died.
Ceremonies in New JerseyIn our region, ceremonies took place on the Battleship New Jersey anchored on the Delaware River in Camden and at Stockton University near Atlantic City.
Naval veteran Peter Fantacone of Mays Landing enlisted right after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was a central speaker at the Stockton event. Not having been in the Navy in 1941, he talked mostly about his experience in the D-Day invasion.
“The explosion on our port side rocked the ship, starting a fire and spraying the forward deck with fuel oil. The crew battled the flames, then a shell from the German barrier onshore exploded aboard,” Fantacone said.
Fantacone needed his father’s help when he enlisted in the Navy at age 17. Details of landing at Normandy were kept so secret, he said he thought they were just doing a drill.
“I think every soldier and sailor on those ships were at Mass that afternoon. When the chaplain gave general absolution, I knew then this was not another practice run,” he said.
He also recalled what it was like when the war ended in 1945.
“Church bells rang across the United States and Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Arctic to the Gulf Coast, not in triumph or celebration but as a solemn reminder of national unity,” he said.
A mysterious sightingAlso attending the ceremonies in Hawaii, Ray Chavez said he was out on a minesweeper, the USS Condor, in the early hours before the attack. He remembers noticing with his shipmates that a mysterious submarine was lurking off the harbor.
“At 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, I look out and spotted a submarine that wasn’t supposed to be in that area,” the 104-year-old Chavez said.
The sailors reported the sighting, and Chavez went home to sleep. He told his wife not to wake him because he hadn’t gotten any rest during the busy night.
“It seemed like I only slept about 10 minutes when she called me and said, ‘We’re being attacked.’ And I said, ‘Who is going to attack us?’ She said, ‘The Japanese are here and they’re attacking everything,'” Chavez said.
These days, many people treat Chavez and other Pearl Harbor survivors like celebrities, asking them for autographs and photos. But Chavez said it’s about the people who were lost.
“I’m honoring them, not myself,” he said.