PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Thousands of people gathered at Pearl Harbor on Wednesday for a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the attack that plunged the United States into World War II and left more than 2,300 service people dead.
Under a clear blue sky, a few dozen attack survivors and others assembled on a pier overlooking the harbor. They bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. — the same moment Japanese planes began their assault on Dec. 7, 1941.
The USS Halsey sounded its whistle to start the moment. F-22 fighter jets flying in formation overhead broke the silence afterward.
Earlier, Laura Stoller watched as crowds jostled for autographs and photos with survivors. Stoller accompanied her adoptive grandfather and Pearl Harbor survivor Stan VanHoose of Beloit, Wisconsin, to the event and was happy to see the veterans getting attention.
"All of these men who for so long didn't get the recognition they deserve— they're soaking it up. And it's so fun to see," Stoller said.
VanHoose, 96, served on the USS Maryland.
Fellow survivor Jim Downing of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said he comes back to Hawaii for the anniversary commemorations to be with his shipmates.
"We get together and have a great time and compare our stories," he said.
Downing said surprise, fear, anger and pride overcame him as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor.
Then a newlywed sailor, he recalled a Japanese plane flying low and slow in his direction as he rushed to his battleship from his home after hearing explosions and learning of the attack on the radio.
"When he got the right angle, he banked over, turned his machine guns lose," Downing, now 103, said in an interview at a Waikiki hotel. "But fortunately he didn't bank far enough so it went right over my head."
The next aviator might have better aim, Downing remembers thinking. And with nowhere to hide, "I was afraid," he said.
His ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by nine torpedoes.
"We were sinking, and everything above the water line was on fire," he said.
Downing said he felt proud while watching sailors balance the capsizing ship by allowing water to seep in. The tactic let the giant battleship slide into mud below.
"They just instinctively did the right thing at the right time without any thought about their own lives or safety," he said.
The West Virginia lost 106 men. Downing, who also served as the ship's postmaster, spent two hours fighting fires and checking the name tags of the dead so he could write their families personal notes about how they died.
Ray Chavez was out on a minesweeper, the USS Condor, in the early hours before the attack. He remembers noticing with his shipmates that a mysterious submarine was lurking off the harbor.
"At 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, I look out and spotted a submarine that wasn't supposed to be in that area," the 104-year-old Chavez said.
The sailors reported the sighting and Chavez went home to sleep. He told his wife not to wake him because he hadn't gotten any rest during the busy night.
"It seemed like I only slept about 10 minutes when she called me and said 'we're being attacked.' And I said 'who is going to attack us?' She said 'the Japanese are here and they're attacking everything,'" Chavez said.
These days, many people treat Chavez and other Pearl Harbor survivors like celebrities, asking them for autographs and photos. But Chavez said it's about the people who were lost.
"I'm honoring them, not myself," he said.
Also Wednesday, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying he and first lady Michelle Obama join Americans in remembering those who gave their lives on Dec. 7, 1941.
"We can never repay the profound debt of gratitude we owe to those who served on our behalf," he said.
The president said he will visit the USS Arizona Memorial later this month with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.