A small group of old soldiers and Marines gathered Tuesday to remember where they were, what they did and how they survived when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.
Mostly, they recalled being caught by surprise, helpless and unable to fight back.
"I can still see this Japanese pilot who flew over so low that you could see the big smile on his face," said John Toy, 92, of Mount Sterling. "At the time, I thought that if I had waved at him he probably would have waved back."
About 100 people turned out for a luncheon at Lexington's Oleika Shrine Temple to observe the 69th anniversary of the attack that forced America into World War II. But only four of the guests knew what the historic air raid was really like, because they were there: Vaughn Drake, 92, of Lexington; John Wood, 90, of Glasgow; Herman Horn, 90, of Frankfort; and Toy. A fifth Pearl Harbor survivor was expected but did not attend.
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That is no longer unusual. With all Pearl Harbor survivors now in their late 80s or early 90s, their small circle grows more exclusive almost every day. But their memories remain vivid.
Horn was at a small Army installation adjacent to Pearl Harbor, in a perfect spot to fire on Japanese planes as they turned from their bombing runs over the U.S. ships. Instead, Horn and other soldiers were told to save their ammunition in case the Japanese sent invasion troops ashore.
"Every time the planes came over, all we could do was run into the cane fields and take cover," Horn said. "We really couldn't do anything."
Wood was living at a Marine Corps tent camp outside Pearl Harbor when the bombing began. He and his buddies at first thought the Japanese planes were "friendlies" out on maneuvers. Then, Wood saw one plane go down in flames.
"I thought that was just a little too real to be maneuvers," Wood said. The Marines grabbed weapons, but the planes stayed too far away to shoot at.
It wouldn't be the last time Wood had to dodge bombs. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he was sent to the Pacific island of Midway where, a little more than six months later, U.S. forces scored their first major victory over the Japanese.
Drake, an Army engineer, wasn't sure the Pearl Harbor attack was for real until a Japanese plane crashed at Kaneohe Naval Air Station, where Drake was stationed. Drake salvaged a small chunk of metal from the wreckage, and years later learned the dead pilot's name from military records. He still has the piece of wreckage.
"I once thought about donating it to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base museum in Dayton," Drake said. "But then I thought it would make a good souvenir for my son, so I probably will leave it to him."
Tuesday's luncheon was sponsored by the Lexington-based Pearl Harbor Commemorative Association. Event chairman Don Dixon, 75, acknowledged that one day no Pearl Harbor survivors will be able to attend the annual event. But the luncheon will go on, he said.
"So many younger people today don't know the significance of Dec. 7," Dixon said. "We have to keep the stories and the tradition alive."