‘I saw death all around me’: Survivors commemorate Pearl Harbor attack

Posted Dec. 07, 2013, at 9:18 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 07, 2013, at 7:40 p.m.
The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941.
Handout | Reuters
The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941.
A view of the USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941.
Handout | Reuters
A view of the USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941.
This captured Japanese photograph shows the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941.
Handout | Reuters
This captured Japanese photograph shows the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Dec. 7, 1941.
Pearl Harbor survivor Peyton Smith (center) salutes during the &quotMoment of Silence" while attending the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 2013.
HUGH GENTRY | REUTERS
Pearl Harbor survivor Peyton Smith (center) salutes during the "Moment of Silence" while attending the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 2013.

HONOLULU — American survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many in their 90s, gathered on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the attack in 1941 that took the lives of more than 2,000 of their peers and thrust the United States into World War II.

Many used wheelchairs, while others leaned on canes or relied on the help of family members at the 72nd commemoration of the Dec. 7 attack.

“We’re getting to be fewer and fewer every time,” said Robert Irwin, an 89-year-old retired lieutenant with the San Francisco Fire Department.

Irwin was just 17, serving at Pearl Harbor when Japanese air and naval forces attacked the island of Oahu. The assault took about 2,400 American lives.

Nearly half of those who died were sailors aboard the battleship USS Arizona, which Japanese torpedo bombers sank early in the attack, killing 1,177 of its 1,400-member crew.

“I rushed down and saw planes coming in under the telephone wires,” Irwin said. “I saw the bombs hit and explode the Arizona. … I saw death all around me.”

The USS Arizona Memorial, built over the wreckage of the ship, now forms a centerpiece of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, a historic site administered by the National Park Service.

As has been the practice in previous years, veterans, relatives and visiting dignitaries bowed their heads for a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the time when the attack began.

The ceremony included a flyover and a guided missile destroyer honoring the USS Arizona as well.

Kathleen Chavez traveled to the ceremony from San Diego with her father, Raymond Chavez, who was stationed on the sweeper USS Condor at the time of the attack.

“This man is 101 years old,” she said of her father, seated next to her. She and her father have been attending the memorials for decades, she said.

“This will be the last one he’ll be able to travel,” she said. “This is our final one together.”

The attack left 1,178 Americans wounded. A dozen U.S. warships were sunk or heavily damaged in the attack, which also destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.

Herb Weatherwax, 96, was a switchboard operator at Pearl Harbor.

“I saw the whole thing. The Arizona engulfed in flames, it was a terrible sight,” he said.

Weatherwax pointed to the motorized scooter he uses to get around, saying he lost his mobility after getting frostbite fighting in Europe, including at the Battle of the Bulge.

“I’m paying the price,” he said. “But I’m not dead, and that’s something. I’m still here.”

 

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