FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — At exactly 55 minutes past noon Wednesday, pilot Jim Record will take off from Long Island’s Republic Airport and steer his World War II-era North American SNJ 2 around the Statue of Liberty, while his co-pilot prepares the drop of 75 red American Beauty roses — commemorating each year since Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The red roses will be joined by a single white rose, commemorating the victims of Sept. 11.
“It’s important for the people in general to remember this and also for the military people to remember this,” Mr. Record, 69, a retired airline pilot, Vietnam-era veteran and Navy flier, said. “It’s not something they stress too much in school — or if you talk about Dec. 7 to people on the street, they don’t know what it means. That’s a shame. It’s shocking and very important in our history.”
It’s a momentous milestone of an event that stubbornly refuses to retreat into the history books — the 75th anniversary of the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an event that dragged a reluctant America into World War II and transformed an isolationist nation into a global superpower. The number of first-hand witnesses dwindles by the day — a 20-year-old Navy corpsman at Pearl Harbor turns 95 this year.
Gerard Barbosa, 93 of East Meadow, Long Island, is one of two Pearl Harbor survivors who plans to attend Wednesday’s ceremony. Then a 17-year-old second-class petty officer and assistant gunner aboard the USS Raleigh in the waters off Oahu, he isn’t sentimental about the terror he lived through.
“I’m no hero. I volunteered, my twin brother volunteered, my father was in World War I. We’re strictly military,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
But for all his nonchalance, Mr. Barbosa has been attending the rose-dropping ceremony for 20 years, “sick or not,” including one year when he came a day after a heart operation.
“I fool around with the politicians, show them pictures of the Polynesian girls. They say, ‘Oh, gee, I wish we were there,’ but not on that Sunday,” he said.
For many, the memories remain vivid even more than seven decades later.
Harold Mainer was a 20-year-old Navy boatswain’s mate first class on the USS Helena when he saw one of his closest comrades die. Mr. Mainer was getting ready to take shore leave when the first bombs hit Battleship Row.
“I had $12.50 in my pocket. That was a half-month’s pay back then,” the 95-year old Arkansas native recalled in an interview.
Mr. Mainer was manning his battle station when a superior ordered him to grab a fire hose and wash the blood out of a station near his that had just been hit. Mr. Mainer asked who had been hit, to no avail. All that was left of the man was his shoes.
“We had a guy who could shine your shoes like nothing else,” Mr. Mainer said of Bryant Potter, a North Carolinian and one of his best friends aboard the Helena. “When I saw that shoe floating by, I knew who it was,” he said.
Over the next three hours, Mr. Mainer and thousands of other U.S. sailors battled back the Japanese onslaught while trying to evacuate the wounded and dead off their ships.
“From then on, we just did what we were supposed to do,” Mr. Mainer said.
The 75th anniversary has brought an extra fervor to the national commemorations. Restorers in Hawaii just this week put the finishing touches on a $650,000 renovation of the four-story orange-and-white tower on Ford Island that served as the flight control center for embattled U.S. forces scrambling to organize a defense that Sunday morning. A group of nearly three dozen attack survivors, including 104-year-old San Diego resident Ray Chavez, the oldest living veteran of the attack, are being flown to Pearl Harbor to be honored.
Mr. Chavez, who was serving on the USS Condor minesweeper when the Japanese first struck, told the local NBC affiliate in San Diego that he typically attended his home city’s memorials to Pearl Harbor, but was making the five-hour trip because “over there I feel different, completely different.”
“I feel like I am one with them and they are part of me,” he said of his lost comrades. “I go and say a little prayer for their souls, and that makes me feel better.”
The “dropping of the roses” ceremony is a 46-year tradition started by Pearl Harbor survivor and Long Island native Joseph Hydrusko. The ceremony was taken over in 1996 by the Long Island chapter of the Air Force Association.
Fred DiFabio, the 75-year-old president of the Long Island Air Force Association (AFA), said the most important part of the annual ceremony is educating the public.
“I always felt and still feel that the general public was not 100 percent behind honoring our veterans in the past, [though] it has gotten much better than it was,” he said. “I am a Vietnam veteran. I know how the vets feel and still feel today, how the general public sees them.
“When I do these programs, it’s to honor the veterans and to show the public that these people are an integral part of the economy, of this country. If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be enjoying the freedoms you have today.”
Earlier in the week, the AFA held a plaque dedication ceremony to honor Pearl Harbor survivors from Long Island who participated in earlier rose-dropping ceremonies. Of the original group of 18 Pearl Harbor veterans, just two are still alive — Mr. Barbosa and Seymour Blutt, 98, who was serving in the Army Air Corps — the forerunner of today’s Air Force — at Hickam Field on the morning of Dec. 7.
Mr. Barbosa recalled the roller coaster of emotions he experienced in an interview with a local television station.
“I had the weekend on duty on board the ship,” he said in the video, wearing his olive-green uniform and a veterans cap. “I had just finished breakfast, got dressed — put my dungarees on — and I heard this big explosion and thought the ship was coming out of the water.”
He went on, “So I said, ‘OK, I have to get up the ladder as quick as I could and get to my 20-millimeter.’ I could hear the bullets bouncing in front of me and hitting the bulkhead — that’s the wall. I’m running as fast as I could, don’t ask me how I didn’t get hit — my other friend was running right with me. He says, ‘Ain’t you scared?’ I said, ‘I’m shaking like a leaf. Don’t ask if I’m scared!’”
Reaching his gun, Mr. Barbosa said he just aimed for the Japanese flag on the side of the planes whizzing by.
“I said, ‘Look at that red meatball! A good target to aim at.’ And that’s what I did.” Later, Mr. Barbosa was told he shot down either six or seven enemy aircraft.
“I didn’t believe it, but I wasn’t counting,” he said in the interview.
In Washington the World War II Memorial on the Mall is again serving as a focal point for the remembrance of the sacrifices made at Pearl Harbor. On Tuesday the Friends of the WWII Memorial organization held a candlelight vigil at the memorial, where the names of the 2,400 U.S. casualties at Pearl Harbor were read aloud.
On Wednesday veterans of the war and their families are set to gather at the memorial for a wreath-laying ceremony. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a Navy veteran, will deliver the keynote address. Another wreath-laying ceremony is set for the U.S. Navy Memorial Plaza.
And in just the latest sign of how far the world has come since 1941, Japan confirmed Monday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with President Obama at Pearl Harbor two days after Christmas, the first Japanese leader to go to the naval base since Dec. 7, 1941, the “day of infamy.” The Abe government said in a statement that Mr. Abe was going to remember the victims of the attack, which killed more than 2,300 American servicemen and women.
Mr. DiFabio said he was heartened by the news that an American president and a Japanese prime minister will be meeting in friendship and peace on such fraught, hallowed ground.
The Japanese “are honorable people [and] they understand what they did and what started the war,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing that the prime minister is going there. Japan is an ally of the United States and is a strong supporter of our country. It’s probably something that should have been done a long time ago.”
Added Mr. Record: “As a retired international airline pilot, I spent a lot of time in Japan and always enjoyed a fine relationship with the local people. The horrendous events that both started and ended WWII have always been contentious points. The fact that our president visited Hiroshima earlier this year and the Japanese prime minister is visiting Pearl Harbor this month should go a long way to strengthen the U.S.-Japanese alliance we have enjoyed since the war.”
For Mr. Barbosa, Pearl Harbor was the just the opening show — figuratively and literally — of his service. He would be sent to Europe to take part in the invasion of Normandy. Since the end of the war, Mr. Barbosa has been active in educational programs for children about World War II, while organizing fundraisers and events for fellow veterans.
“We try and help these guys out as much as we can,” he said.