December 7th, 2011
10:16 AM ET

Pearl Harbor survivors honor friends, ensure memories never die

Editor's Note: Live coverage of Pearl Harbor remembrance events begin at 7:30 a.m ET and 12:30 p.m. ET. You can watch all of the events live on CNN.com here.

Survivors of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will remember the 2,400 people who lost their lives 70 years ago Wednesday.

Flying from aircraft carriers on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese aviators attacked eight battleships, destroying two, and left a trail of death and destruction across the verdant landscape. They also struck other military installations on Oahu, Hawaii. The attack shook America's confidence and ushered the country into World War II.

For 70 years, survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor have captivated listeners with their firsthand accounts, recalling buddies who died in their arms or the glasses worn by a low-flying Japanese pilot.

The annual commemoration in Hawaii begins at 7:40 a.m. (12:40 p.m. ET ) at the Pearl Harbor visitor center.

They have participated in solemn wreath-laying ceremonies and spoken to civic groups and school children about the infamous day and the need for the United States to remain vigilant. But the gradual loss of the World War II generation has accelerated, and this year, perhaps more than any before it, evidence of a tide change is inescapable.

So for them, today will be another chance to share their stories of what happened, in the hopes that their memories live on even after they don't.

Bob Kerr, 90, can still draw a detailed map of the Hawaiian island of Oahu from memory. He points out Pearl Harbor, the adjacent Hickam Field, and even the path the Japanese planes took over the island on December 7, 1941.

"It’s important for people to know that there was such a thing as an attack in 1941 on December the 7th," Kerr said. "It’s part of history. It’s one of the biggest events in our history. 9/11 may equal it, but it can't be forgotten."

George Bennett, national secretary of The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association's and a survivor, remembers that on the day of the attack he heard explosions, but thought it might be part of a U.S. military exercise or an accident.

Bennett, now 87, saw a Japanese plane flying low over barracks near the USS California. He and others worked to put out a fire on a hangar roof, but eventually were ordered to get down.

George Bennett was a radio-trained 17-year-old seaman first class on December 7, 1941.

"Toward the end, the Japanese started to strafe us up there," Bennett told CNN.

LIFE's photos of Pearl Harbor attack

Mary McCormick, 65, of Amarillo, Texas, told CNN her father, Lee Soucy, was supposed to have his enlistment expire December 7, 1941. Soucy, a pharmacist's mate on the USS Utah, would vividly recall a peaceful Sunday morning that quickly turned to terror, she said.

"He was looking out the port window and saw what he thought would be his last day there. He saw these planes coming in. He thought it must be the Marines because nobody else would be working on Sunday."

Lee Soucy swam 200 yards to shore from the sinking USS Utah. His remains were placed inside the vessel Tuesday.

The Utah was quickly disabled. Soucy swam 200 yards to shore from the sinking vessel and survived.

Kerr recalled how he, too, first reacted as the attack took place.

"At first people were saying the Navy is still playing with us. But why would they be shooting live ammunition? We had been on alert. We were bombing them with sacks of flour, they were bombing us with sacks of flour. Didn’t anyone tell the Navy the alert was called off?” Kerr recalled. “Then someone said, ‘That’s not a Navy plane. It’s a Japanese plane. It’s got a big red ball on the side of it.’”

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Bob Kerr, now 90, had the grim task of finding out which men in his squadron died.

When he finally walked out toward the porch of the barracks, Kerr saw a man in a cook's uniform lying on the ground. Rolling him over, Kerr realized the man was dead. It was the first time he had seen a dead body outside of a funeral parlor.

He realized things were going to be bad. He knew America was now at war.

So, as part of his job he went to get a roster of the men in his unit so he could keep track of who was injured or had died. He remembers that a first sergeant walked by and told him that was a good thing to do.

But he also remembers that was the last thing that first sergeant ever said.

"(Aircraft gunfire) got him just about then – killed him at the moment," Kerr said. "Right in front of my eyes while I’m looking at him."

Time.com: Read TIME's original story on Pearl Harbor

It is those vivid, yet painful memories that the survivors are hoping to share. They don't want what they witnessed to get lost or buried in textbooks students may never read.

For some veterans telling the stories of what happened that day still makes them cringe as they describe the graphic scenes that unfolded that day. And for some, the angst against the Japanese took a long time to get over. But for Bennett, that anger has faded. Now, in perspective, the important part is passing along the story of what he endured.

"We were trained to fight the Japanese, and the Japanese were trained to fight us," Bennett said. "It was the leaders in Japan who made this happen. That's the way I look at it. I harbor no ill will toward the Japanese today."

McCormick said her father had a similar view to Bennett. Before Soucy died, he had spoken at previous symposiums and met Japanese pilots.

"He forgave," McCormick said. "On his Pearl Harbor Survivors garrison cap he had a button that read 'love not war' written in Japanese."

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Ronnie Raygun

    We must never again allow our enemies to have advanced technology such as the Nazi's had. How in the heck we can stop them from becoming smarter than US is a mystery. And really. Just how smart are we these days.

    December 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Ronnie Raygun

    Our kids have a much clearer picture of the horrors of war. How many broomsticks do you old folks remember being shoved up the asses of enemies on nationwide TV?

    December 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ronnie Raygun

    ...and as if 'war' is a natural cycle. The only thing the two have in common is that they are both peddaled.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. saywhat

    @ Ronnie Raygun
    Sure our kids are being brought up on violence & the thugs occupying the Hill in cahoots with MIC keep pushing this country into one mess after the other.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. saywhat

    Those of you who feel for this country & want answers should read " Lying for Empire- How to Commit War Crimes with a Straight Face" by David Model.
    What started this madness that we & our kids have been witnessing for the past decade.
    " President H.W. Bush discovered a way to go back in time. You take a modern industrialized country with a modern infrastructure and drop 88,500 tones of explosives on it & presto you have bombed it back into pre-industrial age'

    December 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. saywhat

    Our first invasion of Iraq in 1991 under Bush Sr & creation of our military boot print in S.Arabia & Gulf Emirates started this insanity. It spurred movements like Al-Qaeda & the like of Osama bin Laden managed to rally people to their call of driving out foreign troops from Arab/Islamic lands.
    Here we stand now. Thousands of our young brave troops dead, thousands more scarred for life, military suicides, trillions of dollars of national treasure gone & counting. legacy of corruption & torture. tens of thousands of civilian deaths. No strategic, economic or military goals achieved quite to the contrary we lost credibility, prestige & clout in that region. Alliowing powers like China, Russia & india to benefit. Let Iran increase its influence where we turned people hostile to us.
    A complete mess.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ronnie Ryagun

    @saywhat...good point. Our kids feed thenmselves more war and violence than can be found in all of WWII, some do this daily for hours on end, and even some of their dads play the same childish bloody games. But get this straight: the ONLY thing that got Iraq in trouble with US is the fact that the Bush-Zapata corp. developed Kuwaits oilfields and began illegally selling oil to Iraq's OPEC customer J-pan. Iraq complained to the UN for nearly 2 years before invading Kuwait and torching Bushco's oilwells. Before that, we armed the madman Saddam even after he had comitted major atrocities against his own people.

    December 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. saywhat

    @ Ronnie Ryagun

    You are right in the sense that Iraq invasion had been in the planning much before the orchestrated Pearl Harbor class pretext – 9/11.

    December 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Ronnie R

    @saywhat. If you want to look at it from that perspective, one would think that that war on Iraq had been planned from the time Bush-Zapata first developed Kuwaits oilfields. However, I don't think they got the idea to sell Bushco oil to J-pan until about the time they formed the Carlyle Group with the Bin Laden family. Keep in mind that Bush-Zapata was a CIA sponsored outfit, and that Bill Clinton even worked for them when he himself was a CIA agent and again after Whitewater. (I always throw that in to dodge the "it's bush's fault" mindless comments)

    December 7, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. saywhat

    Again you have something there @ Ronnie R. Thanks

    December 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. bobcat (in a hat)

    I remember my father and uncle telling me stories of WW2. They both fought in the pacific theater. All I could feel for them was the utmost respect for what they endured. May all WW2 vterans never be forgotten. I salute you.

    December 7, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Mourning After

    @tom hat...yep. 25, 000,000 million Russians are hard to forget. What, with the 6 million of yours being rubbed.

    December 8, 2011 at 12:36 am | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RR gun

    @saywhat. Cool then. See ya 'round, redhead.

    December 8, 2011 at 12:40 am | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RR gun

    @hat cat...my grandpa served on the USS Arizona. What of it?

    December 8, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RR gun

    @saywhat.. he he You had me before 'citizen' once. How many times 'redhead'? Really. Who are you?

    December 8, 2011 at 12:51 am | Report abuse | Reply
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