More than 100 people gathered in Lexington on Friday to remember a defining moment in American history: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The audience included many veterans of World War II and other conflicts. But the principal guests were five men who were present when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging America into the war.
Vaughn Drake, 94, of Lexington; Jon Toy, 94, of Mount Sterling; Herman Horn, 92, of Frankfort; John Wood, 92, of Glasgow, and Bill Schardt, 92, of Holmdel, N.J., were stationed at different places in and around Pearl Harbor 71 years ago Friday. All five were in harm's way once the attack began.
Schardt was a seaman on the U.S. cruiser Helena, which was anchored in the harbor. The ship was badly damaged by a Japanese torpedo just minutes into the attack, and about 20 men were killed. But the Helena kept shooting at the swarming enemy planes throughout the battle.
Schardt first attended the Lexington Pearl Harbor observance last year, after he started spending more time in Kentucky to be near his daughter Judy Turner of Shelbyville.
Wood, who was a Marine in 1941, said his outfit arrived at Pearl Harbor just a few days before the attack. He was living at a tent camp near the harbor when the bombs started falling.
That was only the beginning for Wood. A few weeks later his unit was sent to the Pacific island of Midway, which came under Japanese attack in June 1942. The resulting Battle of Midway is considered the turning point of the war because the Japanese Navy suffered irreparable losses.
"Midway might not have won the war, but it sure slowed the Japanese down," Wood said Friday. "I feel a lot better about that battle than I do about Pearl Harbor."
After 71 years, the number of Pearl Harbor survivors is dwindling. Only 10 known survivors remain in Kentucky, and the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded at the end of last year because of falling membership.
Don Dixon, chairman of the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Association, which sponsors the annual Lexington observance, says the organization will continue to mark the anniversary even if Pearl Harbor survivors aren't able to attend.
Dixon said he's looking at several possibilities, such as having the observance at a Lexington high school so students can take part and learn about the enduring importance of Dec. 7, 1941.