Aging veterans at 73rd Pearl Harbor anniversary say it's getting tougher to travel to Hawaii

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PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Veterans who survived the Pearl Harbor attack that launched the United States into World War II attended Sunday's 73rd anniversary ceremony with the help of canes, wheelchairs and motorized scooters.

Wearing purple orchid lei, about 100 Pearl Harbor and World War II survivors attended the ceremony overlooking a memorial that sits atop sunken battleship USS Arizona. Many of them arrived well before the sun came up.

This year's anniversary of the Japanese attack is the 10th consecutive one that USS Utah survivor Gilbert Meyer attended. But it's getting harder for Meyer, 91, to travel to Hawaii from San Antonio.

Asked if he planned to attend next year's anniversary, he responded with a chuckle, "That's like asking me if I'll still be alive."

Harold Johnson, 90, is making it a goal to attend the 75th anniversary, even though traveling from Oak Harbor, Washington, isn't always easy. "I've got a little scooter that's a real life saver," the USS Oklahoma survivor said.

Johnson had been aboard the Oklahoma for just six months on Dec. 7, 1941, looking forward to a day off and a "date with a little Hawaiian girl." He was shining his shoes when the first alarm went off, he recalled.

"Three months later I ran into her in town in Honolulu," he said of his date. "She was mad at me because I stood her up."

For many of the roughly 2,000 survivors who remain, there are also more painful memories.

Keynote speaker Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of Pacific Air Forces, told the crowd of several thousand about four of the nine remaining survivors of the USS Arizona. Don Stratton, 92, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Lauren Bruner, 94, of La Mirada, California, were two of six men who escaped the inferno that engulfed the forward half of the ship by negotiating a line, hand over hand, about 45 feet in the air, despite burns to more than 60 percent of their bodies. John Anderson, 97, of Roswell, New Mexico, was ordered off the ship, but he didn't want to leave behind his twin brother, Delbert. Even though he was forced into a small boat that took him to Ford Island, he commandeered an empty boat and returned to the Arizona to rescue three shipmates. But he never found his brother.

"When the Arizona sank, she took with her 1,177 sailors and Marines," Robinson told the crowd, which included Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Hawaii Gov. David Ige.

Robinson also highlighted the sacrifices of the Honolulu Fire Department, which was dispatched to respond after receiving the alarm at 8:05 a.m. "Without knowing it, the Honolulu Fire Department was going to war," she said. "Three firefighters would never return, and six others would be seriously injured."

The ceremony also featured a Japanese peace prayer, a Hawaiian blessing and a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the bombing began. F-22s from the Hawaii Air National Guard 199th Fighter Squadron and Air Force 19th Fighter Squadron conducted a flyover.

Later in the afternoon, the four USS Arizona survivors planned to visit the memorial for a toast to their fallen shipmates with a glass of sparkling wine given to their survivors association by President Gerald Ford, using glasses that are replicas of the ones on the ship. After the toast, divers would place one of the glasses at the base of the Arizona's gun turret four. It's where ashes of 38 Arizona survivors are interred.

This year's anniversary will likely be the last one Ervin Brody, 91, of Houston attends. "Expenses are getting up there and we're retired," he said. "A lot of us figure this will be the last."

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .

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