Survivors recall Pearl Harbor attack, 75 years later

Pearl Harbor (File: CBS)

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into World War II. Survivors of Japan’s surprise attack will attend commemorative ceremonies to honor those who died.

The iconic memorial that sits over the wreckage of the battleship Arizona is the backdrop for the main ceremony. But for survivors, returning 75 years later, there are other less famous places here that hold great significance and terrible memories, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

A few hundred yards from the Arizona, a small group gathered at sunset to remember the men who served on the USS Utah. The rusting wreckage of the Utah remains in the exact spot in Pearl Harbor where it went down, hit by two Japanese torpedoes, 75 years ago on Wednesday morning. Fifty-eight died, but more than 400 crew members survived.

Gilbert Meyer, 93, is one of only six still living.

“How did you make it off the ship?” Blackstone asked.

Smoke rising as the first bombs hit the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (CBS)
Smoke rising as the first bombs hit the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (CBS)

“I swam… I was sleeping down on the starboard side here. The torpedoes hit the port, that’s why she’s rolling,” Meyer recalled.

“You were asleep when the torpedoes hit?” Blackstone asked.

“Yeah, yup. Well, I had the mid-watch and I stayed up all night,” Meyer said.

The ceremony here honors not just those killed on the Utah, but many of the survivors who in death chose to be with their shipmates, their ashes placed in the wreckage. Tania Warnock’s grandfather died three years ago.

“You look out there, your grandfather’s ashes are out there. What’s that like?” Blackstone asked.

“It’s surreal. And we promised that we’d take him home,” Warnock said.

“And this is home,” Blackstone said.

“That’s his home, that’s where he wanted to be,” Warnock said.

The veterans for this 75th anniversary are now mostly in their 90’s. Their numbers are dwindling and some call it “the last reunion.”

Many have returned with several generations of their families, determined to share their story

“I saw the Oklahoma going over,” said Mel Heckman, who survived the attack. “She took 460 with her that day.”

The organization “Wish of a Lifetime” helped 93-year-old Mel Heckman come back with four generations of his family.

“Being here and sharing this spot with him… it’s a blessing,” said Mel’s grandson, Robert, as Mel wrapped his arm around his his shoulder. “And it’s a once-in-a-lifetime blessing.”

For those serving today, the aging veterans serve as an inspiration.

“When I walk up to them in my uniform as a Three Star General, they immediately try to stand up or salute me,” said Lt. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield of the U.S. Pacific Command. “And I have to tell them, please, I’m honoring you! The honor is mine!”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Monday he will visit Pearl Harbor along with President Obama later this month. But a Japanese official made it clear the prime minister will be coming to pay respects to the dead, not to offer an apology.

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