They are beginning to disappear now, the men and women who can remember with almost photographic clarity that day 47 years ago when the sky suddenly filled with rolling clouds of oily black smoke and the world changed forever.
Most of them are in their 60s or 70s today, and their numbers are finite and shrinking but still they see that bright morning through the clear eyes of old warriors for whom the bullets and bombs signaled the end of youth and isolation and safety. And today they are surrounded by generations of Americans who either have no personal recollection of Dec. 7, 1941, or who may even be ignorant of its significance.
The survivors, however, are of another era, when heroism was frequent, courage was commonplace, purposes were clear and war was just.
And when they remember Pearl Harbor, they do not recall it abstractly. They did not get the news later that day on the radio, or from a newspaper, or from the neighbor down the block. They got it immediately, out of the flashing gun ports of Japanese fighters.
They were there.
Today they continue to come together each month as members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., one of the most exclusive veterans' organizations in the world. On the last Sunday of each month, at the American Legion hall in Los Alamitos, the members of the Orange County area chapter gather, not to relive their common link with history but simply to keep in touch, for there is a bond among them stronger than mere friendship. The single fact that they lived through an apocalyptic event and went on to grow old together is enough.
"Yes, it still has a lot of meaning," said Burt Holland, a Fountain Valley resident and the former chief warrant officer on the U.S. supply ship Castor, loaded with a cargo of ammunition when the Japanese attacked. At age 89, Holland is the oldest member of the Orange County chapter.
"We're passing on now," he said, "and when you go to others' funerals together it brings back memories. Everyone's story is different. Here, you hear a lot of things you never heard before." Del Lacquement, the immediate past president of the chapter, called his fellow survivors "really special people. Other veterans' organizations don't have the kind of camaraderie we do. They have too many age brackets, with people who were in Korea or Vietnam. Here, we're all about the same age, around 70. And there won't be any more of us. When we're gone, we're gone."
The exact number of Americans alive today who were present at the battle of Pearl Harbor cannot be pinpointed. However, the national membership rolls of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., which was chartered in 1958, contain about 10,000 names. The largest number come from California, which is home to 30 chapters and nearly 2,600 members. There are 213 members in the Orange County chapter.
To qualify as a member, said Jim Facer, a former president of the chapter, a person must have been in a branch of the American military and been on or within a 3-mile radius of the island of Oahu during the 2 hours of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941. And, he said, because of the number of female Army and Navy nurses and other female noncombatants who were serving in the military on Oahu at the time, the organization welcomes women as well as men.
It is a light-hearted group, with much kidding and backslapping and handshaking. War stories are exchanged, but much of that talk centers on old acquaintances or locations rather than on the battle itself.
"We generally talk about it very seldom," said Facer, who served as a gunner's mate 1st class on the battleship California. "People claim they joined (the association) because they don't want to fight the battle all over again."
But if they are asked by an outsider, they will talk about it, particularly as another Dec. 7 approaches.
Pete Janovich, a jovial retired barber from Norwalk, said he actually saw the face of his attacker as bullets from a strafing fighter came stitching down the boat deck of his ship, the battleship Tennessee.
"Another guy and I were on the deck and we saw this plane come in and we just froze," Janovich said. "If we hadn't done that, we probably would have gotten shot because this pilot just machine-gunned all around us. I can still remember the eyes of that gunner. He was close enough where I could see his teeth, like he was laughing as he machine-gunned us."
Fred Betts, who was a warrant gunner on the light cruiser Phoenix at Pearl Harbor, retired from the Navy with the rank of commander after 30 years of service.
"I'd just sat down to my first cup of coffee at breakfast when everything started," he said. "The next time I had anything to eat was that night. In between times, I was kind of busy."
Betts' ship was undamaged in the attack and it put to sea early that afternoon to join two American task forces already at sea.