Many Survivors Gather for Final Time on the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

They survived one of history’s most infamous ambush attacks, but for veterans of Pearl Harbor one approaching enemy cannot be avoided: time.

It was 70 years ago today, on a quiet Sunday morning in a lagoon harbor on the coast of Hawaii, that the Empire of Japan unleashed a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet by sea and air. The result was almost 3,900 killed or wounded American soldiers and the official entry of the United States into the Second World War.

Years after the war ended, in 1958, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association (PHSA) was created as a venue for veterans of the attacks to share stories, educate younger generations and keep alive the memory of that day.

“I looked out across Pearl Harbor, ships were burning and sinking, dead bodies and injured people were in the water,” Roland Benjamin Peachee, a survivor of the attacks, recounted on the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association website.  “The world as I knew it no longer existed.”

Of the 29,000 veterans who counted themselves as members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association over the years, however, approximately 3,000 remain. They are in their late 80’s or early 90’s, and for many age and the physical ailments that accompany it prevent them from attending events and functions. As a result, the association will disband on December 31 of this year, bequeathing the role of preserving their legacy to an affiliated organization called the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors (SDPHS).

“By no means does this mean the Pearl Harbor survivors are going away,” Kathleen Farley, state chairwoman for SDPHS, told the Contra Costa Times. “It is our vow that the sons and daughters, grandkids and great-grandkids will be lighting the beacon in their memory.”

Association members are encouraged to continue meeting for social events, but the loss of veterans to time and age is an inevitability that cannot be avoided.

“We’re all moving into our 90s and late 80s,” 90-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Stu Hedley told CNN. “It’s part of life. We have to accept it one day at a time.”

In ceremonies across the United States on Wednesday, including near Pearl Harbor, both the survivors, and the victims of the attacks, will be honoured. For many, this year’s ceremony will be the last they attend in person. It is hopeful that technology such as Internet streaming of events will allow survivors to take part in ceremonies from across the country in the future. For now, however, many veterans will join one last time to remember that infamous day 70 years ago, as well as to impart some wise advice, learned through the endurance of war and depression, to the generations to come.

“My first warning to you is to stay in school. Don’t quit,” Hedley said. “The other admonition is learn to live with one another. Regardless of race, creed, religion or whatever.”