Pearl Harbor survivors honoured on 75th anniversary of attacks

Seventy-five years after a Japanese admiral led the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, the mayor of his hometown is joining his Honolulu counterpart to mark the anniversary — as friends.

Memorial sees sister cities Honolulu and Nagaoka come together to overcome war-torn legacy

Historical footage including President Roosevelt's announcement 1:51

It has been 75 years, but U.S. Navy veteran James Leavelle can still recall watching in horror as Japanese warplanes rained bombs down on his fellow sailors in the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the Second World War.

Bullets bounced off the steel deck of his own ship, the USS Whitney, anchored just outside Honolulu harbour, but a worse fate befell those aboard the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS Utah and others that capsized in an attack that killed 2,400 people.

"The way the Japanese planes were coming in, when they dropped bombs, they'd drop them and then circle back," said Leavelle, a 21-year-old Navy Storekeeper Second Class at the time of the attack. ​

Leavelle, now 96, was among 30 Pearl Harbor survivors honoured at a reception in Los Angeles before heading to Honolulu to mark Wednesday's 75th anniversary of the attack. 

James Leavelle, a 96-year-old Pearl Harbor Survivor, attends an event honouring 30 surviving World War II veterans who will travel to Hawaii to attend ceremonies for the 75th anniversary of the attack. (Ted Soqui/Reuters)

The bombing of Pearl Harbor took place at 7:55 a.m. Honolulu time on Dec. 7, 1941, famously dubbed "a date which will live in infamy" by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Fewer than 200 survivors of the attacks there and on other military bases in Hawaii are still alive. 

Wednesday's commemoration at a pier overlooking the memorial to the sunken USS Arizona built in the harbour is set to begin with a moment of silence at precisely that time.

About 350 Second World War veterans and their families will be serenaded by the Navy's Pacific Fleet Band with a musical remembrance made bittersweet by the knowledge that every member of the USS Arizona band — one of the best in the U.S. navy — died that day.

Pearl Harbor survivors Delton Walling, centre, Gilbert Meyer, right, and U.S. navy Admiral Margaret Kibben salute during a ceremony honouring the sailors of the USS Utah at the memorial on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Wednesday. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

Attendees will watch a parade, and two families will participate in a private ceremony in which the ashes of crew members who survived the attack and later died, will be interred in a turret of the Arizona. 

Across the United States on Wednesday, Americans will pause to remember those who died at Pearl Harbor, and the long world war that followed.

Sister cities come together

Seventy-five years after a Japanese admiral led the attack on the U.S. naval base, the mayor of his hometown is joining his Honolulu counterpart to mark the anniversary — as friends.

Tatsunobu Isoda, the mayor of Nagaoka, Japan, will join Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to lay flowers at the main memorial event on Wednesday and join a smaller ceremony a day later co-organized by Japan and the U.S. for the first time.

Isoda's presence is the fruit of nearly a decade of effort by his predecessor, Tamio Mori, who in 2014 became the first Japanese municipal leader invited to the commemoration in Hawaii.

"To many Americans, Pearl Harbor was a sacred place for the survivors and their animosity, and a place to glorify the war dead," said Nagaoka city official Yusuke Nishiyama, who has organized peace education and youth exchange programs with Honolulu for several years.

In this Aug. 15, 2015, photo, Admiral John Fuller, left, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, centre, and then-Nagaoka mayor Tomio Mori watch during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Honolulu. Nagaoka and Honolulu are now sister cities. (Marco Garcia/Associated Press)

Nagaoka, a city of 270,000 on the Japan Sea, is the hometown of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the naval commander who masterminded the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that killed 2,400 sailors, marines and soldiers.

Mori reached out to then Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann at an international conference in the Hawaiian capital in 2007.

Introducing himself as the head of Yamamoto's hometown, he proposed youth exchanges for peace education to restore friendship.

It took five years for Nagaoka and Honolulu to become sister cities, and even longer to build a deeper trust.

"We continued our exchanges, not just on milestone anniversaries but year after year, and it was last year when we finally heard the word 'reconciliation' mentioned [by the U.S.] for the first time," Nishiyama said.

Nagaoka is famed for its fireworks, and displays of them in Hawaii have become a symbolic part of the exchange, including one at the ceremony last year marking the 70th anniversary of the end the war.

Fireworks explode over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, near the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Battleship Missouri Memorial during the 70 Years of Peace display by the city of Nagaoka to commemorate the end of World War II. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

In Nagoaka, the fireworks have long served as a reminder of the more than 1,400 people who died in U.S. aerial firebombing attacks on the city during the final weeks of the war.

Historic visit by Japanese PM 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced this week that he will visit Pearl Harbor with U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 26-27 to pay respects to the war dead as a gesture of reconciliation.

He would become the first leader of his country to go to the U.S. naval base in Hawaii that Japan attacked in 1941, propelling the United States into the Second World War.

"We must never repeat the tragedy of the war," he told reporters when he made the announcement. "I would like to send this commitment. At the same time, I would like to send a message of reconciliation between Japan and the U.S."

The battleship USS Arizona sinks after being hit by a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. The White House confirmed that President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 27. (U.S. National Archives via Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press