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The Pearl Harbor attack is still seared into a survivor’s memory: ‘Everything ... blew up and was on fire’

Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary
A stunned soldier sits outside Schofield Barracks following the Japanese attack on Oahu, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. Ceremonies this Dec. 7 will observe the 75th anniversary of the attack.
(National Park Service)

President Franklin Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy.” As the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor approaches, sailors and civilians have worked to spruce up Hawaii’s biggest tourist attraction.

In the distance beneath an American flag, the USS Arizona Memorial (center) and the USS Missouri (left) are living reminders of the attack that drew the United States into World War II.
In the distance beneath an American flag, the USS Arizona Memorial (center) and the USS Missouri (left) are living reminders of the attack that drew the United States into World War II.
(National Park Service )

Visitors from around the world, including many Japanese, come visit every day but Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. They take the short boat ride from a pier beside the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to the USS Arizona Memorial, which floats above the sunken battleship. The images of the sinking ship, ablaze after being bombed by enemy warplanes, are etched into the American psyche.

Smoke billows from the USS Arizona (right) on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. On the far left, the USS West Virginia begins to sink following the Japanese attack on Battleship Row. The ship in between, the USS Tennessee, suffered only minor damage.
Smoke billows from the USS Arizona (right) on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. On the far left, the USS West Virginia begins to sink following the Japanese attack on Battleship Row. The ship in between, the USS Tennessee, suffered only minor damage.
(National Park Service )
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Of the more than 2,400 service members and civilians killed that Sunday morning, nearly half the total – 1,177 – were sailors and Marines aboard the Arizona.

Service members look on from the Ford Island air base as the destroyer USS Shaw explodes in a ball of flame.
Service members look on from the Ford Island air base as the destroyer USS Shaw explodes in a ball of flame.
(National Park Service )

“There were 335 [sic] of us on the ship that got off that day,” Lou Conter, one of those survivors, told me as we stood on the memorial. “We were just lucky.”

Conter, now 95 and one of only five survivors still alive, makes a pilgrimage from his Grass Valley, Calif., home to Honolulu each Dec. 7 to stand aboard the Arizona Memorial as wreaths are laid to remember those who died.

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He plans to travel across the Pacific again this month. Three of his comrades also hope to attend a morning observance on Kilo Pier (it’s open to the public) before traveling to the memorial.

Lou Conter (center in blue shirt) and other survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor salute during a wreath-laying ceremony Dec. 7, 2015. Conter is one of only five still-living veterans who were aboard the USS Arizona.
Lou Conter (center in blue shirt) and other survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor salute during a wreath-laying ceremony Dec. 7, 2015. Conter is one of only five still-living veterans who were aboard the USS Arizona.
(National Park Service )

Despite the passing decades, Conter’s memories of that day are clear.

“I was on the quarterdeck, just about where we are,” he recalled. “Everything from right over there forward blew up and was on fire.”

The USS Arizona Memorial, a monument to those who died, floats above the submerged battleship, clearly visible in this June 27, 2016, photo. Oil, which continues to seep from the ship, creates a continual slick in the water.
The USS Arizona Memorial, a monument to those who died, floats above the submerged battleship, clearly visible in this June 27, 2016, photo. Oil, which continues to seep from the ship, creates a continual slick in the water.
(U.S. Navy )

More than 1,300 free tickets are distributed each day – on a first come, first served basis – for the shuttle operated by Navy sailors. The USS Arizona Memorial is the centerpiece, but it is just one of several attractions at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, about 13 miles northwest of the Waikiki hotels.  

The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no admission fee.
The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no admission fee.
(National Park Service )

Usually guests can see the free attractions in about 90 minutes. There is a wealth of informative exhibits at the Visitor Center, where a 23-minute documentary is screened throughout the day.

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 Two other attractions are moored here, but you’ll have to pay to visit  the USS Bowfin and the USS Missouri, neither of which was built at the time of the attack.

The submarine USS Bowfin, which saw service in the South China Sea during the war, is open daily for self-guided tours. Admission fees apply.
The submarine USS Bowfin, which saw service in the South China Sea during the war, is open daily for self-guided tours. Admission fees apply.
(Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority )

The Bowfin, an attack submarine, was launched one year to the day after the Japanese air raid. Between 1943 and 1945, the sub spent most of its patrols in the South China Sea. Self-guided tours of the ship and an adjacent museum cost $12 for adults and $5 for children 4-12. Headsets for an audio tour are included.

Although it wasn’t built until 1944, the USS Missouri, often called the “Mighty Mo” played a historic role in the war. While at anchor in Toyko Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered aboard the ship on Sept. 12, 1945.

A brass plaque marks the spot where Gen. Douglas MacArthur signed the document on behalf of the Allies, officially bringing the war to an end.

A statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur stands outside the Battleship Missouri Memorial.. There’s a charge to tour the ship, located across Pearl Harbor from the National Park Service Visitor Center.
A statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur stands outside the Battleship Missouri Memorial.. There’s a charge to tour the ship, located across Pearl Harbor from the National Park Service Visitor Center.
(Jay Jones )

Because it’s on Ford Island, still an active military base, visitors are taken to the Missouri (and the nearby USS Oklahoma monument) aboard buses that depart regularly from the visitor center. Tickets cost $27 for adults and $13 for children 4-12.

An identity card, issued to a Hawaii resident of Japanese heritage, forms part of the Bishop’s Museum’s exhibit about the local impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of Japanese-Americans were interned throughout the war.
An identity card, issued to a Hawaii resident of Japanese heritage, forms part of the Bishop’s Museum’s exhibit about the local impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of Japanese-Americans were interned throughout the war.
(Bishop Museum )
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The attack’s aftermath is also being remembered in “Homefront Hawaii,” a special exhibit at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. The displays share the stories of ordinary citizens and what they had to endure in the days, weeks and years after Dec. 7, 1941.

Japanese-Americans, who many feared might be aiding the enemy, were required to register and community leaders were arrested and interned in camps in Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland.

A special $10 bill, circulated only in Hawaii during the war, was intended  to thwart fears that the Japanese might try to harm America’s economy.
A special $10 bill, circulated only in Hawaii during the war, was intended to thwart fears that the Japanese might try to harm America’s economy.
(Bishop Museum )

One of the curious artifacts is a $10 bill with the word “Hawaii” in large letters over an image of the U.S. Treasury building. The special money, circulated only in Hawaii, was printed because of the ongoing fear of an invasion.

The Japanese could have seized large amounts of the money, but they would not have been able use it to disrupt America’s economy, because it wasn’t  good outside of the islands.

The exhibit is open and continues through February.

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