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Marking the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Every year, military veterans return to the island of Oahu to mark the occasion. But the passage of time means there are fewer people with firsthand memories. Casey Harlow from Hawaii Public Radio reports this year's Pearl Harbor commemoration could be the last time a large group of survivors is able to attend.

CASEY HARLOW, BYLINE: On the morning of December 7, 1941, Ralph Matsumoto was 20 years old.

RALPH MATSUMOTO: All those - the anti-aircraft shells were falling back on the city, blew up. It scared the hell out of me, you know?

HARLOW: When the smoke cleared, Matsumoto saw Japanese aircraft attacking Pearl Harbor, even seeing the faces of some pilots. He also recalls the reaction of residents to being attacked by Japan.

MATSUMOTO: Because they were the aggressor, yeah? Because at that time, Honolulu here was two-thirds Japanese.

HARLOW: Matsumoto was trained in intelligence and served in the Army. He's one of more than 30 Pearl Harbor survivors attending this year's Remembrance Day ceremony on the island of Oahu. He joins more than 120 World War II veterans who are making an emotional trip this year.

MICHAEL MALONE: This is such a monumental commemoration.

HARLOW: Michael Malone is a coordinator with the nonprofit Best Defense Foundation.

MALONE: This was the event that launched us into the Second World War and reshaped our entire world as we know it today. And all of their individual lives changed at that moment.

HARLOW: Malone's group is one of several that are bringing survivors and their caretakers to Hawaii this year. It's an anniversary even more somber than usual. Over the years, fewer survivors have been returning. Eighty years after the attack, many believe this might be the last time most survivors will be able to return to Pearl Harbor given the age of those service members. Jim Neuman is an historian with the Navy in Hawaii. While this year's event is a milestone, he says it's important to remember that what the greatest generation really did was simply rise to the occasion.

JIM NEUMAN: They weren't superhuman. They didn't have something in their blood that made them better than anybody else. They were just a generation that valued the things that we value. We believe that any generation can be the greatest generation if they hold those same values and they respond the way that this generation did.

HARLOW: Neuman says there will still be remembrance ceremonies after all survivors have died or can no longer attend, but those remembrances will be different.

For NPR News, I'm Casey Harlow in Honolulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Casey Harlow