Nearly seven decades later, Pearl Harbor attack still a vivid memory

The view looking out from the San Diego-bound Amtrak Surfliner on Saturday was Americana 2010. Morning garage sales, youth soccer games and grocery shopping trips flicked past at 80 mph.

But inside a 1940s-era first-class lounge car, it was pure 1941, right down to the Navy blue uniforms, Yank magazines and packages of Clove chewing gum.

Sixty-nine years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, veterans and their families, railroad buffs and World War II re-enactors in period dress took to the rails on Saturday to mark the upcoming anniversary of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese fighter pilots carried out a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii, killing more than 2,400 service members and civilians.

For passengers on the Pearl Harbor Troop Train Ride — an event organized by a pair of railroad enthusiasts for the past eight years — it was also an opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from World War II veterans, whose numbers continue to dwindle as the years pass.

"Every time you meet a World War II veteran, you have to take into account that it is probably going to be the last time you are going to see them," said 32-year-old Robert Smith, of Monrovia, who came dressed in an impeccably preserved Navy uniform.

Along its route from Union Station in Los Angeles to San Diego, veterans and their family members board at stops that include Fullerton, Anaheim, San Juan Capistrano and Irvine.

During the six-hour round trip, veterans recalled enlisting at 17, Kamikaze attacks, war-time rationing and lost comrades.

Joe Kawka, 89, was a signalman on the destroyer USS Cassin, which was in a Pearl Harbor dry dock on the day of the attack. He and his fellow seamen survived by climbing up onto the dock. The Japanese pilots were flying so low, Kawka said he could see their faces.

One taunted him, wagging his finger as he flew by, Kawka said. Stuck without ammunition, the sailor had to improvise a response.

"I threw a potato at him, but I missed him by an inch," Kawka said.

There with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Logan Gray, 86, recalled being a petty officer 3rd Class who managed the cables that caught planes as they landed on deck.

His aircraft carrier, the USS Wake Island, was hit by a Kamikaze plane, ripping a huge hole in the bow. The seamen could see their lockers floating away through the opening, Gray said. His damaged ship eventually limped back to harbor at Okinawa, where they made temporary repairs.

It was a violent and treacherous experience, but Gray said he served out of innate sense of duty.

"My brother was in the army, and I thought I should be doing my part, too," he said. "That was the way we looked at it…Most everybody was teenagers who were joining."

But as the years pass, those young service members are dying off, leaving fewer to remember and recant war time stories.

The ride was inspired by the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, at which time American World War II veterans were dying at a rate of 1,000 per day, said Debbie Hatrick, who organizes the event each year with her husband, Bill.

"Today, we don't get as many veterans as we did on the first ride," she said. "It is sad to see how many have gone."

As the Hatricks look to the 70th anniversary next year, they know the search for World War II vets will be harder.

"Are we going to be able to find any survivors? I sure hope so," Bill Hatrick said.

The encounters on the train are brief, he added, but the stories endure.

"I've been privileged to connect with the greatest generation and say 'Thank you' one more time."

FOR THE RECORD: This corrects an earlier version that had the incorrect name of the Amtrak train.

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