Just before 8 a.m. local time Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese warplanes shattered the Sunday quiet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was an attack on the United States that would soon thrust the country into World War II.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed. But the greatest loss of life occurred on the USS Arizona: Of the 1,512 on board at the time, only about 300 survived. The ship rests, sunken, at the bottom of the harbor — along with the remains of hundreds of victims.
Over the decades, survivors of the sinking of the Arizona have been a fixture at memorials and events marking the attack, a date which has indeed lived in infamy.
But on Friday, for the first time in more than seven decades, no Arizona survivors were present at Pearl Harbor when officials commemorated the 77th anniversary of the attack.
Only five Arizona survivors are still alive: Lauren Bruner, 98; Lou Conter, 97; Lonnie Cook, 98; Ken Potts, 97; and Don Stratton, 96.
None was able to travel to Oahu this year, the Associated Press reported.
In 2014, the Arizona Republic newspaper visited all remaining USS Arizona survivors — nine at the time — and published extensive interviews with them. What emerged were moving stories and remembrances of an attack that had profoundly altered their lives.
Most could still recall vivid details about that Sunday morning, though a few, even decades later, could not bring themselves to talk about shipmates who did not escape.
For years, elderly survivors of the Arizona sinking faithfully returned to Oahu to participate in ceremonies to remember the attack. As in past years, Friday’s events included a military flyover in the missing man formation and the ringing of Arizona’s bell.
In the Republic’s 2014 reporting, Potts described the memorial to the attack in Oahu — the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument — as “one of the best actual memorials I’ve seen.”
Ray Chavez, previously the oldest known survivor, died less than three weeks ago in his sleep, at age 106. In May, Chavez visited President Trump at the White House, which tweeted a remembrance of the veteran after his death.
We are saddened to hear the oldest living Pearl Harbor veteran, Ray Chavez, has passed away at the age of 106. We were honored to host him at the White House earlier this year. Thank you for your service to our great Nation, Ray! pic.twitter.com/CA7Xdcxz89— The White House (@WhiteHouse) November 22, 2018
“We’re lucky to have five Arizona survivors left,” Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
“At their age of 95-plus, it’s remarkable that they’ve had that longevity, and it keeps us still secured to the idea that someone could tell us what happened — because they witnessed it."
The death of each USS Arizona survivor, however, is a bittersweet reminder that we are increasingly further removed from one of the most viscerally shocking events in U.S. history.
Fewer than 500,000 veterans of World War II are still alive, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — with about 348 dying each day.
“It makes me afraid that we’re going to distance ourselves from what happened,” Pearl Harbor visitor Kasey Cross told Hawaii News Now.
Though the few remaining USS Arizona survivors were missing, Friday’s Pearl Harbor commemoration was attended by at least some World War II veterans who made it out of Pearl Harbor alive — sailors from other ships, including the USS Pennsylvania.
One of the five living USS Arizona survivors, 97-year-old Conter, said it was “doctor’s orders” that prevented him from making the trip from his home in Grass Valley, Calif., to Oahu this year, according to the Union newspaper.
But the nonagenarian made a prediction for the 2019 ceremonies, which will be the 78th commemoration of the attack.
“I’ll be going back next year,” Conter told the newspaper.