PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – Dozens of survivors of Pearl Harbor on Monday solemnly remembered those who died in the Japanese aerial assault 68 years ago as a top Navy commander said their bravery laid the foundation for the subsequent U.S. victory in World War II.
About 2,000 servicemen and women and members of the general public joined the survivors. The crowd looked out on the spot where the USS Arizona sank in the first minutes of the attack, killing 1,177 people. Almost 1,000 people are still entombed on the battleship.
To some, the service has taken on great poignancy given the fact that U.S. troops are risking their lives in the more recent conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, President Barack Obama issued orders to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
"It's the same thing all over again," said 89-year-old Richard Laubert, of Phoenix, Ore., who was a pharmacist mate at the Naval hospital at the time of the attack. "I just thought when we were doing the war that would be it for the rest of time. But it seems like we just never solve anything."
Sterling Cale, 88, said chills ran down his back as he remembered picking up wounded sailors and bodies from the water when he was a Navy corpsman 68 years ago.
"I was in the water there and picked up 46 people in four hours," Cale said. He recalled having to swim mostly underwater because diesel fuel leaking from the ships caught fire.
John Hughes, who was a Marine serving at Ewa Field, a West Oahu air station on Dec. 7, 1941, choked up when he was asked what was going through his mind.
"You think back about what happened," said Hughes, as a tear trickled down his cheek. The 90-year-old flew to Hawaii from Santa Ana, Calif. for the ceremony.
Adm. Patrick Walsh, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, said the valor and selfless sacrifice of that morning defined the Navy. The way Navy recovered from the attack "charted a path for a wounded nation," he added.
"It's important to remember what those who serve experience in the hours that follow tragedy," Walsh said. "It's their biography that inspires us and gives us the strength, the commitment, the character and the resilience for the fights that we have ahead of us."
The youngest survivors are now about 85 years old, and their numbers are dwindling.
Laubert said he hopes to return for the 69th anniversary next year. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association says the 2010 observance may mark their last gathering given the age of their members.
"When you get to 90, your chances are thinning out," Laubert said.
By next year, the National Park Service plans to finish construction on a $58 million new visitors center near the Arizona memorial. The current center, which was built on reclaimed land in 1980, is sinking.
It also takes in twice as many visitors each day than it was designed to hold. People must often squeeze by one another to view photos and maps in the small exhibit hall.
The new center will be triple the size, allowing the park service to explain the history of the attack in greater detail, including how Japanese and Americans perceived each other in 1941.
Among the themes, said Daniel Martinez, the park's chief historian, would be: "How did these great countries that had been friends become mortal enemies?"