In wheelchairs and on walkers, the old veterans came Wednesday to remember the day 70 years ago when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But FDR’s “date that will live in infamy” is becoming a more distant memory.
Fewer and fewer veterans who experienced the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, are alive to mark the anniversaries and most of them are in their 90s, many prevented by health problems from traveling to Hawaii. One survivors’ group said it would disband because age and infirmity made it too difficult to carry on.
“People had other things that they wanted to do with the remainder of their lives,” Pearl Harbor Survivors Association president William Muehleib said. “It was time.”
The 2,390 Americans who died in the attacks are not forgotten. Besides Pearl Harbor, there are remembrances elsewhere
In Phoenix, the goal every year is to draw 1,177 people — the number who died on the USS Arizona — but organizers don’t come close to that anymore.
Just 45 people showed up last year. On Wednesday, about 300 people gathered for a mile-long remembrance walk, carrying miniature U.S. flags and tags bearing the names of Pearl Harbor casualties.
“As time goes by, it might actually fade. This may be the last significant anniversary when we could thank a survivor. Get out there. Get your chance to thank them,” event chairman Ben Ernyei said.
Those who made it to Pearl Harbor were treated to a hero’s reception. The 5,000 spectators whistled, shouted and applauded loudly as the 120 or so survivors stood to be recognized, and others asked for autographs and took photos with them.
Muehleib said local chapters of his group will function as long as they have members and survivors can gather socially, but they will no longer have a formal, national organization. He also predicted survivors would attend future commemorations at Pearl Harbor.
The association — founded in 1958 — has 2,700 members, he said. There are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Pearl Harbor survivors.
President Barack Obama hailed the veterans in a statement proclaiming Wednesday as “National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.”
“Their tenacity helped define the Greatest Generation and their valor fortified all who served during World War II,” he said. “As a nation, we look to December 7, 1941, to draw strength from the example set by these patriots and to honor all who have sacrificed for our freedoms.”
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, witnessed the attacks as a young man in Honolulu and fought in World War II, losing his right arm in combat and earning the Medal of Honor. “As we continue to lose members of the Greatest Generation, those who witnessed the attack, lived through the war and saw the world change, we must remember the events of December 7,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor.
The nation has debated how to mark anniversaries and memorials before as events fade into history. New York City’s mayor this year suggested it might be time to stop reading the names of nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 victims every year once that 10th anniversary passed.
Mal Middlesworth, a Marine who was on the USS San Francisco during the attack, said the survivors association formed to make sure younger generations heard about what they went through.
“They wanted young America to understand that freedom isn’t free. Never has been and looks like it’s never going to be,” he said in the keynote address. “Remember, he who forgets history will live it again.”
Carissa Westfall traveled to Hawaii to mark the anniversary as part of a college program that paired students and veterans traveling to important battle sites. The veteran she was with, Guy Piper, was brushing his teeth on Ford Island when he saw bombs falling from Japanese planes.
“Honestly, before this trip I never realized. I didn’t know — I didn’t think that there were guys my age and younger watching their friends die right next to them,” said Westfall, a sophomore at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri.
Also this week, ash-scattering and interment ceremonies are being held for five survivors whose cremated remains are returning to Pearl Harbor after their deaths.
On Tuesday, an urn containing the ashes of Lee Soucy was placed on his battleship, the USS Utah. The ashes of Vernon Olsen, who was on the Arizona, were to be placed on his ship later Wednesday.
The U.S. lost 12 vessels that day, but the Arizona and the Utah are the only ones still sitting in the harbor.
The ashes of three other survivors will be scattered in the water in separate ceremonies this week.
USS Utah survivor Gilbert Meyer said he comes back each year to see his shipmates entombed in the battleship that rests not far from where it sank off Ford Island.
Meyer, 88, recalled his ship rolling over after being hit by a torpedo and seeing Japanese planes dropping bombs. When the planes began showering his ship with machine-gun fire, he knew it was time to move.
“That really got my attention, so I got in the water and swam ashore,” he said.
In Phoenix, Kristy Henderson of Glendale, Ariz., whose two grandfathers served in World War II, did the walk with her mother and two children, ages 2 and 1.
She said the youngest are the most likely to forget Pearl Harbor.
“As time goes on,” Henderson said, “I don’t think it’s brought up as much.”