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Aging survivors return to Pearl Harbor to recall ’41 attack

Dec 8, 2019, 10:40 AM | Updated: 10:47 am
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Pearl Harbor survivor Lou Conter, 98, center, from the USS Arizona, smiles during the 78th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
(AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — A dozen frail survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor returned Saturday to honor those who perished when Japanese planes pierced a quiet sunny morning 78 years ago and rained bombs on battleships lined up below.

About 30 World War II veterans and some 2,000 members of the public joined the survivors, the youngest of whom are now in their late 90s, to commemorate the anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.

Herb Elfring, 97, of Jackson, Michigan, said being back at Pearl Harbor reminds him of all those who have lost their lives.

“It makes you think of all the servicemen who have passed ahead of me. As a Pearl Harbor survivor, I’m one of the last chosen few I guess.” He’s the only member of his old regiment still living.

Elfring was in the Army, assigned to the 251st Coast Artillery, part of the California National Guard. The unit’s job was to protect airfields but they weren’t expecting an attack that morning.

Elfring was standing at the edge of his barracks at Camp Malakole a few miles down the coast from Pearl Harbor, reading a bulletin board when Japanese Zero planes flew over. “I could hear it coming but didn’t pay attention to it until the strafing bullets were hitting the pavement about 15 feet (4.57 meters) away from me,” he said.

A moment of silence was held at 7:55 a.m., the same time the assault began. U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jets flying overhead in missing man formation broke the quiet.

Retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris, currently the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt delivered remarks.

Harris said it’s difficult to imagine the events of 78 years ago when people “not unlike us” were waking up to enjoy another day in paradise. “It was a day of gallantry and unquestionable heroism even as it was a day of sacrifice and immeasurable loss,” Harris said.

He said the World War II generation played a pivotal role in underwriting the freedoms the U.S. enjoys today. “Every December 7 we remember the past actions of our veterans on Oahu because they inspire us today and because they shape our tomorrows,” he said.

The ceremony comes on the heels of two deadly shootings at Navy bases this week, one at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and another at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.

Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, said the military community has received an outpouring of love and support from Hawaii after the shooting at “our beloved shipyard” earlier this week.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of the victims and everyone affected,” Chadwick said.

A Pearl Harbor National Memorial spokesman said security was beefed up as usual for the annual event.

The 1941 aerial assault killed more than 2,300 U.S. troops. Nearly half — or 1,177 — were Marines and sailors serving on the USS Arizona, a battleship moored in the harbor. The vessel sank within nine minutes of being hit, taking most of its crew down with it.

Lou Conter, 98, was the only survivor from the USS Arizona to make it to this year’s ceremony. Two other survivors are still living. Conter was sick last year and couldn’t come. He said he likes to attend to remember those who lost their lives.

“It’s always good to come back and pay respect to them and give them the top honors that they deserve,” Conter said.

Conter said his doctor has vowed to keep him well until he’s 100 so he can return for the 80th anniversary.

The USS Arizona still rests in the harbor today and is a grave for more than 900 men killed in the attack. Each year, nearly 2 million people visit the white memorial structure built above the ship.

An interment ceremony is scheduled to be held at sunset on the memorial for one of the Arizona’s sailors who survived the attack, Lauren Bruner. He died earlier this year at age 98.

Bruner asked that an urn with his ashes be placed inside Arizona’s sunken hull upon his death. His ashes will join the remains of 44 shipmates who managed to live through the attack but wanted to be laid to rest in the ship. Bruner explained before he died that he preferred being interred in Arizona so he could join his buddies and because of the memorial’s high number of visitors.

Bruner is expected to be the last Arizona crew member to be interred on the ship. The three Arizona survivors still living plan to be laid to rest with their families.

Conter, the USS Arizona survivor from Grass Valley, California, said he will attend Bruner’s interment ceremony later Saturday. He said Bruner was a good friend who joined the Navy and the USS Arizona a year ahead of Conter.

“Lauren was a good sailor, a good man. I’m glad he made it through Pearl,” he said.

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Aging survivors return to Pearl Harbor to recall ’41 attack