Sixty years ago this week, Japanese pilots staged a surprise attack on the United States' Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Nearly 2,400 Americans were killed, and the United States was plunged into World War II. Most of the survivors of that attack are now in their 80's and this week they are being honored at the site of the attack, and in their hometowns. One group of Pearl Harbor survivors was recently honored near Chicago.
Ed Block was a 23-year old barber aboard the Navy ship "Medusa" in December of 1941. He says one of the perks of his job was he got to sleep later than most other men on the ship. At about eight o'clock (1200 UTC) on the morning of December 7, he was awakened by the sound of Japanese warplanes attacking the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor. "There were three of us in the barbershop. We were all trying to put our head out the porthole at the same time," says Mr. Block.
Mr. Block says a bullet hit the rim of the porthole, just missing him and his two friends. "I wish the American people could have seen Pearl Harbor the way we saw it Sunday morning." His ship survived the attack, but five Navy battleships were sunk. More than a dozen more were damaged. The number of Americans were killed was 2,388. "These battleships that were being blown up in the air, the black smoke that was coming from them because of their fire, the oil that was on fire," he says. "To see bodies floating on the water. I don't know how you explain that to people who have not seen it."
Mr. Block was among nine survivors of the attack honored at the 32nd annual Pearl Harbor Day Luncheon, held in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. The annual luncheon is organized by the local chapter of the Navy League of the United States, an organization working to educate Americans about the importance of a strong Navy.
On December 7, 1941, Buzz Emerson's ship the "San Francisco" had already been stripped down in preparation for an overhaul. He manned his position in the ship's radio room, and had a rifle given to him, but it was of little use against Japanese divebombers. "You are sort of brought up to think battleships are invincible," he says. "All of a sudden you see them rolling over and blowing up and sinking. It was shocking."
Clarence Wills was far from Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7. He worked on the Navy refueling ship "Trinity", which was in the Pacific Ocean as part of the Asiatic Fleet. News of the attack reached him on the morning of December 8, and was a surprise. Despite a warning from his sister a few weeks earlier that relations between the United States and Japan were worsening, he did not think that war was imminent. "She sent me a letter saying, "It doesn't look good. You had better come home." As though I had a choice," he says. "I wrote her a letter back, saying, "No nation would attempt war with the United States.""
The Japanese would soon turn its attention to the Asiatic Fleet. Mr. Wills says the fleet lost 32 ships and 1,800 men in the three months after Pearl Harbor.
Buzz Emerson is also a member of the Navy League, and says for him the lesson of Pearl Harbor is that the United States must always be ready to defend itself. "We have got to be prepared so that it does not happen again. That is our main purpose," he says. "A lot of us talk at schools and places like that to get that message across."
On the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, survivors continue to shrink in number. Most joke that few of them are likely to be around for the 70th anniversary. Navy League officials say that is why it is important to honor these survivors today. Rear Admiral Ann Rondeau, who commands the Navy's Great Lakes Training Center near Chicago, says a younger generation continues to honor those who were there by visiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, and joining the Navy.
Many have compared the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. to Pearl Harbor, for the shocking effect they both had on the nation. Clarence Wills says he is encouraged by the American people's support for the ensuing military campaign against terrorists. "I do not see anything like they did for Vietnam, no demonstrations against it. I think everybody believes this is the way it should go," he says. "I just hope it continues until we finally win."
Thousands of people are gathering at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, this week for a series events linked to the 60th anniversary.