Just before 8 a.m. local time on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes 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.
Despite a radiogram that was urgently pushed to all U.S. military in the area (“AIRRAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL”), the surprise attack destroyed or damaged more than a dozen American ships and hundreds of aircraft.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed. But it was the USS Arizona that suffered the greatest human loss: Of the 1,512 on board at the time, only about 300 survived. The ship itself rests, sunken, at the bottom of the harbor—along with the remains of hundreds of victims.
Over the decades, those who were able to escape the USS Arizona before it sunk have been a fixture at memorials and events marking the attack, a day which has indeed lived in infamy.
But on Friday, for the first time in more than seven decades, there were no survivors from the USS Arizona present when officials commemorated the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
There are now only five USS Arizona survivors still alive: Lauren Bruner, 98, Lou Conter, 97, Lonnie Cook, 98, Ken Potts, 97, and Don Stratton, 96. None were able to travel to Oahu this year, the Associated Press reported.
The Arizona Republic in 2014 visited all remaining USS Arizona survivors—there were nine still alive at the time—and published extensive interviews with the aging veterans. What emerged were moving stories and remembrances of an attack that had 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 their fellow shipmates who hadn’t escaped.
For years, elderly survivors of the USS Arizona faithfully returned to Oahu to participate in ceremonies to remember the attack. As in past years, Friday’s events include military fighter planes flying over the harbor in a “Missing Man” formation and the ringing of the USS Arizona bell.
One survivor, Ken 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,” according to the Republic.
Ray Chavez, previously the oldest known survivor, died less than three weeks ago in his sleep, at age 106. In May, Chavez had visited President Trump in the White House, which tweeted a remembrance of the veteran after his passing.
“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 passing of each USS Arizona survivor, however, is a bittersweet reminder we are increasingly further removed from one of the most viscerally shocking events in history.
There are fewer than 500,000 veterans of World War II still living, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—with about 348 WWII veterans 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.
One of the five living survivors, 97-year-old Conter, said it was “doctor’s orders” that prevented him from making the trip from his home in Grass Valley, California, to Oahu this year, according to the Union newspaper.
But the nonagenarian made a bold prediction for what will be the 78th commemoration of the attack in 2019.
“I’ll be going back next year,” Conter told the newspaper.