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Harrowing memories

After the USS Arizona was hit by Japanese bombs, it sank within nine minutes. Most other damaged ships were at least partly salvaged, but much of the battleship Arizona remains on the harbor’s floor. Photographs of its destruction became some of the most lasting images of the attack that led the U.S. to enter Word War II.

Another ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by seven torpedoes and three bombs. Harris Bircher recalls being thrown from the ship by the force of the blasts.

Shortly after the attack, the Navy reported Mr. Bircher missing in action. A funeral was held in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. He was unaware that his family and friends assumed he had been killed until days later when he was reassigned aboard the USS San Francisco.

“Later on, I got word that I’d been reported missing and that they had a funeral and all of that. I was just glad that it wasn’t for real,” said Mr. Bircher, now 92 and also living in the District’s Armed Forces Retirement Home.

As the West Virginia burned and the Arizona quickly descended into the water, chaos reigned on Oahu Island. The surprise assault destroyed many of the fighter planes stationed at the base, crippling America’s ability to fight back.

That didn’t stop Steve Krawczyk, who had been on his way to church the morning of Dec. 7, and his comrades in the Army Air Corps 22nd Materiel Squadron from grabbing rifles from a storage depot and firing at the Japanese aircraft overhead.

“It gave us the satisfaction of fighting back,” said Mr. Krawczyk, 93. “There were planes just barreling over the field with the identifying rising sun insignias. Immediately, we knew they were Japanese. And immediately we knew that we were at war. We went from peaceful existence to being blasted.”

Like Mr. Davis, Mr. Krawczyk chose Pearl Harbor over other destinations. He arrived in 1939, and his first two years of service were “pleasant,” he said.

“When the attack came, it was like going 180 degrees from a serene setting to being attacked,” Mr. Krawczyk said.

As he watched a Japanese plane heading right for him, he squeezed underneath a raised sidewalk, fearing the worst. The plane ultimately bombed a target behind him, and he escaped unharmed.

“That was as close as I ever came to being terrified,” he said.

“The thing that carried us through that raid was the fact that the service people we had at that time averaged about 19 years of age,” he said. “And it was the resiliency of youth, you might say, that carried us through that trying period.”

Other servicemen had similar experiences on the island. Pearl Harbor, they had been told, was one of the safest places for them to be.

“Maybe we were subject to our own propaganda. We were told Pearl Harbor was impregnable,” said Jay Groff, 89, who served in the Army Air Corps Rescue Boat Service and now lives in Springfield. “You couldn’t get anywhere near it. Nobody could get close to us.”

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