WASHINGTON – Within a blink of the eye – as Sgt. Steve Krawczyk phrased it – the United States was attacked and “we were at war.”
Krawczyk,86,wasn't talking about the Sept. 11,2001,terrorist attacks. He and Col. Henry Dettmar,86,remember the last time the country was unexpectedly jolted into war: the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Stationed at an Army air base adjacent to the harbor,the two men said they were lucky to survive the sudden attack,which killed nearly 2,400 people. Dettmar,of Arlington,Va.,a retired career officer,said he will never forget the moment Japanese planes appeared overhead,showering the base with bombs.
“We were waiting for some B-17s to come in from the states,” Dettmar said at a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the attack Tuesday at Arlington National Ceremony. “We thought those were our planes. It didn't take us long to realize they weren't.”
Both men ran below ground to grab rifles,machine guns – any weapons they could find – and began shooting at the planes from the windows of their barracks,they said. They continued firing throughout the 2½ hour attack,as Japanese planes passed overhead en route to bombing the battleships in the harbor.
“They were flying so low you could see their faces as you were shooting at them,” said Krawczyk,of Manassas,Va.,who is retired after a career in business.
The memory of the attack is forever etched in his mind,Krawczyk said. But with veterans aging and the Korean and Vietnam wars,Pearl Harbor has gradually become less-talked about,he said.
“It's natural that as time goes on,everything fades,” Krawczyk said. “But for us,it's a matter of honor that we observe it.”
The event did gain new significance as people compared it with the Sept. 11 attacks,which were equally catastrophic,he said.
“In both cases it was the element of surprise,” Krawczyk said. “I guess the difference was that,as soldiers,we were better prepared to handle the situation than civilians.”
While shooting at the planes,Dettmar said he could see debris flying overhead from the U.S.S. Arizona as it was destroyed by Japanese bombs. The Arizona is now an underwater memorial to those killed that day.
Keith O. Kok,55,of Alexandria,Va.,said his uncle was one of more than 900 killed on that ship. Sporting an old U.S.S. Arizona hat,which he wears every year on Dec. 7,Kok attended a different wreath-laying ceremony Tuesday,at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington.
A longtime Army engineer,Kok has always been fascinated by Pearl Harbor. He said that,after the Sept. 11 attacks,Americans revisited Pearl Harbor,but the event's significance is still underestimated.
“It is not well for us to forget because,if we do,we could be reminded again,if we let our guard down,” he said.
Rear Adm. Jan C. Gaudio,commandant of the Naval District of Washington,said Pearl Harbor and the 2001 terrorist attacks were similar wake-up calls for the United States.
“We felt both times that we weren't prepared as we should have been,” he said after helping to place the memorial wreath at the Navy ceremony. “But I think in both cases,we became a much more secure nation as a result of the changes we made.”
Gaudio said the war on terror has weakened the country's enemies overseas and that the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission,which are likely to become law soon,will strengthen the nation's security.
Krawczyk said in the aftermath of attacks,he thinks the nation is adequately prepared to thwart another terrorist strike.
“Hopefully it will stay that way,” he said. “But my fear is that will fade,too.”