'Remember Pearl Harbor': Survivors Return on 75th Anniversary of Attack
The Greatest Generations Foundation helped about 15 veterans make the trip.
— -- Stuart Hedley was on his way to a picnic with a girlfriend and her mother on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when he said he was told to head to his battle station "on the double."
"I got kicked right in the seat of the pants and told: 'Get to your battle station. ... This is the real thing,'" Hedley said.
The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of Japanese fighter planes swarmed the skies above eight enormous battleships. Hedley was a 20-year-old seaman, first class, assigned to the third division.
When the attack ended, about two hours later, more than 2,000 service members were dead and nearly 1,000 were injured. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan and entered World War II.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the attack, Hedley and about 15 other Pearl Harbor survivors traveled back to Hawaii. Their journey was organized by the Greatest Generations Foundation, an organization that honors veterans by helping them return to their former battlegrounds.
Hedley, now 95, estimated that this trip was his 25th back to visit Pearl Harbor. After arriving Saturday, he participated in various activities including a visit to a burial ground for sailors as well as the Navy Hale Keiki School.
Donnie Edwards, vice president of the Greatest Generations Foundation, said it was important to get this particular group to Pearl Harbor together.
"This is, like, the last of the last of the Pearl Harbor survivors," said Edwards, whose grandfather was in the 25th Infantry Division during the attack and later was buried in Hawaii. "It gives the guys an opportunity to share this experience with their brothers and to also continue the legacy of their fallen brothers."
Hedley remembered the attack like it was yesterday. From his battle station aboard the USS West Virginia, he could see planes diving from everywhere.
"I'm wondering what kind of a war is this?" he said. "We heard, 'Bam!' and there went the [USS] Arizona, exploding. And I saw about 32 bodies flyin' through the air. And all of a sudden, the oil just burst into flames. ... Right after the Arizona got hit, it was about three to five minutes later, an armor-piercing shell dropped from a high-level bomber."
The shell blast nearly took off his legs but Hedley was not injured.
"It blew the hatch off right down by my feet," he said. "Had my feet been out where they normally should've been, I'd have no legs or I probably wouldn't even be alive."
The explosion catapulted him and another sailor 8 feet into the air. The two then ran straight for the top side of the ship.
"The ship was on about a 15-degree list. I thought we were gonna capsize. However, there were a lieutenant with 10 men going through the starboard side of the ship, opening up all the sea valves to counteract the flooding of the torpedo hits on the port side, and our ship leveled up and went straight down in the mud."
Hedley and the others had to jump into the water, which was covered in burning oil from the USS Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma. They swam as deep as they could to avoid the inferno. When they reached the shore, an ambulance was waiting for them.
"Hottest breath of air I ever breathed in my life," he said, "and it's by the grace of God that I didn't scorch my lungs."
He told ABC News that he was able to salvage only two items from that fateful day: a pearl buckle and a half penny that had been given to him by a British sailor. His friends in the third division were killed. He, however, continued to fight in nearly 13 battles aboard the San Francisco, including Bougainville, New Guinea and the Battle of Guadalcanal.
"I made a commitment when I joined this Navy to defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I was stickin' till the end," he said. "It's an honor to be back here to remember those that gave their lives so that I can have the freedom I have. ... Remember Pearl Harbor."