The three elderly men walked slowly to the front of the American Legion hall and settled into a row of chairs by the podium. They wore Hawaiian shirts, and white pants and shoes, and the words emblazoned on each of their caps noted their place in history: Pearl Harbor Survivor.
Howard Bender, 92, took the microphone first at Sunday's gathering in Los Alamitos and told the crowd of 50 or so about his experience on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He described going to his battle station during the ambush and fighting the best he could, his focus on the task at hand rather than any broader implications.
"We fought with what we had to fight with, and we came out of it," Bender said. "It was only the evening of the attack that I kind of realized — that's when it really hit me, that something went on that I really didn't understand. I was over the shock, and that's when I started to really break down."
Neal Jones, 91, took his turn next, getting a chuckle when he said that before the bombing started, he and a buddy had planned to go to shore and enjoy a few beers, which cost 10 cents a bottle at the submarine base. John Hughes, 95, followed with an account of going out to buy a newspaper, then looking through trees to see a low-flying airplane approaching with a bomb fixed to its bottom.
The men are part of Chapter 14 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., which was established in 1971 and has met monthly for 43 years at American Legion Post 716. As survivors have died, the chapter's ranks have dropped to barely half a dozen. A row of memorial plaques in a corner of the legion hall includes tiny nameplates for more than 200 deceased members.
Now, the chapter has consigned itself to memory as well. Sunday's gathering was the group's last and featured speeches by longtime members of the post and its partners, a playing of Navy and Marine hymns, and an audio clip of Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech about the Japanese attack that he declared would be "a date which will live in infamy."
"It's been a pleasure down here," Hughes told the group. "A pleasure knowing all of you. And I regret that we have to slow down here and take things easier."
The national Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., which launched in 1958, dissolved three years ago because of diminishing membership, but some local chapters continued to operate. Cherrie Danks, the secretary for Chapter 14, said the group's original charter stated that it could not hold official meetings with fewer than five members in attendance, so it reduced itself to luncheons the last two years.
When the group congregated Sunday for a lunch of ham, potatoes, green beans and rolls, the three survivors who spoke were the only Pearl Harbor veterans in attendance. The rest of the crowd consisted of veterans' children and widows — the latter dubbed "Sweethearts" by the organization — as well as legionnaires and community members who had assisted the group over the years.
Another name frequently came up in the legion hall: Jack Hammett, a former Costa Mesa mayor and Chapter 14 member, died Saturday at 94. Hammett co-founded the Freedom Committee of Orange County, a veterans group that visits schools to teach military history.
"I told some Pearl Harbor survivors about Jack, and the first word they said was 'leader,'" said Dwight Hanson, an honorary Chapter 14 member who moderated much of Sunday's proceedings.
Education has long been a key part of Chapter 14's activities, and Hanson brought his own children to the legion hall Sunday. At one point, he noted to the crowd that if his 10-year-old daughter lived to be as old as the veterans in attendance, the world would have at least one person 158 years after Pearl Harbor who had met some of its survivors.
Judging from the reaction Sunday, more than a few people are keen on preserving their memory. When Bender, Jones and Hughes took the podium at the luncheon's end to bang the gavel for adjournment, members of the audience crowded them and snapped photos. Others captured the moment with their iPhones, while some shook the veterans' hands and thanked them for their service.
In the end, it was Bender, flanked by the other two men, who brought the gavel down. The room erupted in applause, and Ernie Rodriguez, the commander of Post 716, belted out one last announcement with a bit of theatrical flair: "Meeting of the Pearl Harbor defenders is over."