As organizers encouraged attendees at the National World War II Museum on Wednesday to "stand if you can," 91-year-old Navy veteran William Arnold grabbed hold of his daughter for help rising from his chair.
Once on his feet, Arnold, who is hard of hearing and losing his sight, silently mouthed the words of the national anthem as he stood at attention with his hand on his heart.
“I’ll do this for as long as I can,” said Arnold, who was making his first visit to the museum from his home in Cullman, Alabama. “It’s what you do to honor your country. I was proud to be a small part of the war to defend it, and I’m glad I’m here today.”
It was that kind of day at the museum, which set out to make the 75th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii a special one, not just for some of the remaining military survivors of the attack, of whom there are fewer than 2,000 in all, but also for all veterans of the era and, increasingly, their survivors.
Museum spokesman Jonah Langenbeck said about 1,500 people visited the ever-expanding New Orleans museum Tuesday, about double the normal weekday attendance.
“It’s the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the veterans we see now,” Langenbeck said. “We want them to keep coming back.”
Family members participating Wednesday included Mary Ann Collins of Houston, whose father was a civilian contractor on Wake Island and was captured when the Pacific island fell to the Japanese two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. He died in March 1945 after being held as a prisoner for more than three years.
Collins, who was 6 at the time of the attack, was part of a panel discussion that highlighted the day’s activities. She said she still remembers the day when her mother and grandmother heard of the attacks on both Pearl Harbor and Wake.
Collins later broke down recounting the search for her father’s remains, which were relocated to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis after the war, and her journey to Japan, where she visited the dam and airstrip that her father was forced to help build.
Collins wasn’t alone in shedding tears about a man she never got to see again.
The chance to hear from people like Collins was why John Payne of New Orleans brought his son Daryl, 11, and daughter Meagan, 19, to the commemoration.
“I want them to know that freedom isn’t free,” said Payne, whose grandfather was in the Navy during the war. “Many people laid down their lives for us to be here today.”
Navy veterans Cass Phillips and Frank Ermon and retired Marine Master Sgt. Bill Braddock were the stars of the day. All three are in their 90s, but they sat ramrod straight and recounted the events of Dec. 7, 1941, and what happened in their lives afterwards with remarkable clarity.
That is a fairly recent phenomenon of what has been called “the greatest generation,” said Rick Carraway, a past national president of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors.
After years of being reluctant to talk about their wartime experiences, they now realize their time is short, and they want their families and others to know what it was like and what were the lessons learned from Pearl Harbor and the battles that followed in the Pacific and in Europe.
The also enjoy the attention.
“They bring their sharpies and expect a lot of hugs and kisses,” Carraway said.
The stories weren’t always pretty.
Braddock, who later went in with the first wave at Iwo Jima, told of how his squad encountered a wounded Japanese solider who was pretending to be dead.
“But we put five more bullets in him to make sure,” he said. “Sometimes that’s what war is about.”
Phillips added that he no longer felt animosity toward those he fought against.
“I never hated the Japanese,” he said. “They were doing what they thought was best for their country.
“And they were soldiers and sailors just like we were. It’s so sad that so many young men had to die.”