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COVID keeps WWII vets from 79th Pearl Harbor remembrance

An SH-60F Sea Hawk helicopter flies over the USS Arizona Memorial. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans/U.S. Navy)

Due to COVID-19, no World War II veterans will be on hand for Monday’s 79th anniversary remembrance of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor to stand in for the pain, sacrifice and heroism of that day and the longer war.

But about five are being given priority to visit the USS Arizona Memorial with family members and have a moment of reflection with the fallen after the live-streamed morning ceremony, which will also have no public attendance due to the virus.

Among those expected to make the memorial visit is Robert Lee, 99, whose father was in charge of a shoreside water pumping station for the Navy on the edge of Pearl Harbor. The family’s quarters were right behind it.

Lee, who had a front-row seat to the carnage unfolding on Battleship Row as a 20-year-old, grabbed a.22 rifle—which is a very small caliber—and fired at the attacking planes.

“I didn’t expect to shoot them down, ” he said. “It was a case of defiance, I would say.”

He also watched the once-mighty battleship USS Oklahoma roll over after a series of torpedo strikes, and the USS Arizona go up in a fireball after a Japanese aerial bomb pierced her bow and detonated the forward gunpowder magazines.

“The Arizona exploded from within, ” he recalled. “… And before the explosion actually exploded out of the ship, the whole ship, the hull of the whole ship, turned the same red that you would see if a welder was working on a piece of metal. I saw that.”

The five are among 12 local World War II veterans who were initially invited to attend the Dec. 7 ceremony at Pearl Harbor National Memorial’s Contemplation Circle.

But in another somber milestone that reflects the dangers of the virus for the elderly, the decision was made not to have any of the veterans, now close to 100 years old, attend the 7 :55 a.m. event—about the time when bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we will not have WWII veterans at the ceremony but are ensuring they all have the information to view it virtually, ” Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Hawaii, said previously.

Three years ago, about 20 Pearl Harbor survivors alone and 2, 000 members of the public came out for the Dec. 7 commemoration.

Hanako Wakatsuki, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said surviving World War II vets want to come to Pearl Harbor for the 80th anniversary, but the park service and Navy wanted to do something special for the local veterans who had previously been invited to attend the ceremony.

Officials looked for “another way for them to be out at the site and to have their private moment, ” she said. The World War II veterans and up to four family members were offered the chance to go out to the Arizona Memorial on separate boats after the ceremony ends around 9 a.m.

About five are participating. Wakatsuki said, as a result, there’s a delayed opening of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to the public until 1 p.m. The first public boat tour will be at 1 :30 p.m.

Only five public programs—including the boat trip to the memorial—will be offered on the half-hour, and each boat, which can hold 150, is limited to 50 due to the virus.

Reservations have to be made at ahead of time for the 250 tickets available. No walk-ins will be taken for the limited programs that are available, officials said.

Lee is among the veterans expected to head out to pay respects at the Arizona Memorial.

After shooting at Japanese planes with his.22 rifle, he turned the gun over to his sister, who also took some shots. A dock by the pumping station that ferried sailors from ships to a nearby railroad spur for trips into downtown Honolulu was pressed into service as a clean-up station for oil-soaked sailors.

Lee said boats left from the Aiea landing to pull sailors out of the harbor around the damaged Pacific Fleet ships. That pier is now part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet boathouse.

“The boat pool people knew we had plenty of water at the water station, ” and the oil-soaked sailors got some of the heavy oil cleaned off at the landing, he said.

“My mother, myself, my youngest sister and a couple of friends—we turned on the water and washed these fellows down with a kind of soap—Fels-Naptha, ” Lee said. “They washed most of the grease off and then jumped on the boats and went back to their ships. It was very heroic (of them ), I thought.”

Lee wasn’t in the military then, but that changed the very same day.

“By the end of the day, by midnight of Dec. 7, I had managed to go to the Honolulu armory and there I joined the Hawaii Territorial Guard, ” Lee said. In 1942 he joined the Navy.

This year’s commemoration, which will be live-streamed, will include a speech by Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, prerecorded wreath presentations at bases around Oahu, a pass-in-review by a Navy destroyer and a “missing man ” flyover.

The event will be aired on Pearl Harbor National Memorial’s Facebook page and at

This year’s theme is “Above and Beyond the Call ” and focuses on “Battlefield Oahu ” and the fact that Dec. 7, 1941, encompassed the entire island of Oahu.


(c) 2020 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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