HUNTINGTON BEACH — Les Blair's memories had been bottled up for more than 50 years.
But when his 11-year-old grandson, Skyler, began studying World War II, Blair for the first time began to tell his story. Even his son didn't know how much memorabilia Blair had stored from the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.
"The first time he did this, he got very emotional and started crying," Blair's daughter-in-law, Vickie, said. "The only reason he agreed to do this was because Skyler was learning about World War II in school."
But the bottle had been opened. On Thursday, Blair, 75, a member of the Orange County chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., was telling a class of children at C. Fred Schroeder Elementary School about that day in history, an experience he has been sharing with children for the last four years.
When the first bomb hit the Pennsylvania on Dec. 7, 1941, the teenage Blair ran below deck to retrieve ammunition to begin fighting back, he said. When he returned, eight crew members had been killed.
"A bomb struck, and you could see parts of bodies all over the ship. . . ," Blair said, trailing off before a group of wide-eyed sixth-graders. "When I talk about this, naturally I get a little emotional."
The Japanese sent two waves of aircraft to bomb the U.S. naval base that day, attacking with 353 warplanes as well as 32 submarines. The result: 2,403 Americans were killed; 1,500 wounded; 18 ships damaged or sunk.
The Pennsylvania, the Pacific Fleet flagship, was the first ship to return fire, Blair said. It was the admiral's ship, which the Japanese intended to sink. But it would later be repaired and would fight until it was sunk at the end of the war.
That day, Blair told children, gunfire was everywhere. A Japanese fighter plane was gunned down beside his ship.
Tim Ngo, 11, asked whether it was Blair's gun that shot the plane down.
"Naturally, I claim my gun shot it down, but who knows," he said with a chuckle. "Those old guns . . . you would point them and pray they would hit something."
The teenage gunner had left home in Kinga, Okla., at 16. His seven brothers also would fight in the war, and all but his brother Joe, killed in Italy, would return home.
Amid an array of World War II snapshots, dog tags and old ship menus that Blair brought to show the children were a mangled chunk of shrapnel from the bomb that hit the destroyer and a hunk of aircraft skin Blair peeled from a Japanese plane that crashed beside his ship.
He also showed a September 1940 edition of Life magazine, with a picture of Blair and another sailor teaching British soldiers how to operate the guns aboard the Wells.
His picture also appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on New Year's Day, 1941, as he rang in the new year with his future wife, Marie. The couple had met that night.
When the Japanese reported the demise of the Pennsylvania, Marie thought her fiance was dead, until Blair sent her a postcard. They married a month later on Jan. 11, 1942.
His picture appeared again in local newspapers when, in 1996, he carried the torch in the Olympic Torch Run.
"He's like Forrest Gump," teacher Tricia Urbaniec told the children. For "everything he did there was a picture."
A soft-spoken man with pale blond hair, the father of two and grandfather of three from San Juan Capistrano jogs six miles a day and swims 72 laps with Marie, 75. He still can easily fit into his custom-made, wool bell-bottom sailor suit.
Removing the suit from a hanger, Blair turned it inside out, folded it several ways, and told children that sailors slept on their suits to press them because they didn't have irons.
Principal Linda Baxter said Blair's visit made history come alive.
"We are greatly honored," she said, "for all you have done for our country."
Blair plans to join other veterans at ceremonies that will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at El Toro Memorial Park, 25751 Trabuco Road, Lake Forest.