PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Navy veteran Louis Conter was a young sailor standing watch on the quarterdeck of the USS Arizona when Japanese bombers swarmed the skies over Oahu and attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor 69 years ago.
Within minutes that Sunday morning, the Arizona itself had exploded in flames, smoke and pandemonium. Conter was among the fortunate few hundred men to get off alive as the battleship crumpled and sank at its berth, taking 1,177 of its 1,400-member crew to their deaths.
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The loss of life aboard the Arizona accounted for nearly half of the 2,390 Americans who perished at Pearl Harbor and other attack sites on the island on Dec. 7, 1941, the day that drew the United States into World War II.
On Tuesday, as he has for 10 years on every anniversary, Conter, now 89, placed a wreath at the shrine built over the Arizona in memory of the dead, including the sailor with whom he was standing watch that morning.
"Every year it brings back big memories," said Conter, of Grass Valley, Calif. "We look at the ones still aboard the ship out there as the heroes. We're the lucky ones. We came home and got married and had kids and now grandkids. And they're still there."
Conter is part of an aging and ever-dwindling contingent of survivors still attending the annual commemorations. About 120 of the estimated 2,000-4,000 Pearl Harbor veterans still alive returned on Tuesday.
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Fighter jets from the Montana Air National Guard flew above Pearl Harbor in missing man formation to honor those killed in the attack.
Sailors lined the deck of the USS Chafee and saluted as the guided missile destroyer passed between the sunken hull of the USS Arizona and the grassy landing where the remembrance ceremony was held.
After the ceremony, the survivors, some in wheelchairs, passed through a "Walk of Honor" lined by saluting sailors, Marines, airmen and soldiers to enter a new $56 million visitor center that was dedicated at the ceremony.
Merl Resler, 88, of Newcastle, Calif., remembered firing shots at Japanese planes from the USS Maryland and standing in the blood of a shipmate hit by shrapnel 69 years ago.
"My teeth was chattering like I was freezing to death, and it was 84 degrees ... It was awful frightful," said Resler.
USS Pennsylvania sailor DeWayne Chartier was on his way to church but never made it. "I got interrupted someplace along the line," said Chartier, 93.
He returned to Pearl Harbor from Walnut Creek, Calif. "It is my duty. It is not just a visit," Chartier said. "I felt I should be part of it."
Conter said only about 20 survivors are left from the USS Arizona, and just five are healthy enough to travel.
A Pearl Harbor Survivors Association has been around for 52 years and, while struggling to continue, 100 members voted against disbanding at their annual meeting on Monday, said association president Art Herriford.
Herriford, 88, said old age makes it difficult for members to organize their biennial meetings and handle other duties, but they "don't want to throw in the towel right away."
"Some of these old duffers, if you tried to do away with this organization, you'd have them all to fight," Herriford said after the group met in Waikiki. A vote count was not provided.
New visitors center
This year's 69th anniversary coincides with the dedication of the new Pearl Harbor visitors center, featuring indoor and outdoor galleries, interactive exhibits, two movie theaters, an amphitheater and an education center.
The facility, paid for with a mix of private and public funds, is a centerpiece of the World War Two Valor in the Pacific National Monument, and a starting point for tours to the USS Arizona Memorial, a white structure on the harbor surface that stretches across the remains of the sunken battleship.
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In a new addition to this year's event, the ship's bell from the USS Arizona was to peal while a survivor visited each of the 14 attack sites around the harbor, said National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez.
Besides the nearly 2,400 lives lost, the two-hour surprise attack wounded 1,178 people, sank or heavily damaged 12 U.S. warships and damaged or destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.
The 69th anniversary celebration began on Sunday and runs through Wednesday, with a remembrance of the USS Nevada, another battleship stricken at Pearl Harbor but salvaged and repaired in time to see World War II action both in Europe and in the Pacific.
Guns salvaged from the No. 2 main turret of Arizona were later installed on the Nevada and fired against Japanese forces on the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima.PhotoBlog: An iconic image, and audio, from Dec. 7, 1941
'Can't cut the mustard anymore'
As for the survivors association, it plans to shrink a little, so it will have four district directors around the country instead of eight. The move would help it cope with falling revenues as membership declines.
The group had about 18,000 members when it formed in 1958. It now has about 3,000.
But Herriford said age, not money, was the main reason the association considered folding.
"I just can't cut the mustard anymore, you might say. And that's the position of nearly all our people," Herriford said.
Herriford said he, his 89-year-old wife Shirley and their son worked for more than a year to organize their 2010 convention with other association officers.
His wife personally reviewed registrations for 800 survivors, family members and friends four or five times.
"It's been a real hassle. This is what I tried to impress on people. It's a big hassle to put on one of these," he said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.