By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - American survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many in their 90s, gathered on Saturday for the 72nd anniversary of the attack that took the lives of more than 2,000 of their peers and thrust the United States into World War Two.
Many used wheelchairs, while others leaned on canes or relied on the help of family members as they commemorated the attack of December 7, 1941, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt said "will live in infamy."
"We're getting to be fewer and fewer every time," said Robert Irwin, an 89-year-old retired lieutenant with the San Francisco Fire Department.
About 50 Pearl Harbor survivors attended the day's commemorative ceremony, and roughly 2,500 people attended overall.
Irwin was just 17, serving at Pearl Harbor when Japanese air and naval forces attacked the island of Oahu. The assault took about 2,400 American lives.
Nearly half of those who died were sailors aboard the battleship USS Arizona, which Japanese torpedo bombers sank early in the attack, killing 1,177 of its 1,400-member crew.
"I rushed down and saw planes coming in under the telephone wires," Irwin said. "I saw the bombs hit and explode the Arizona. ... I saw death all around me."
The USS Arizona Memorial, built over the wreckage of the ship, now forms a centerpiece of the World War Two Valor in the Pacific National Monument, a historic site administered by the National Park Service.
Some 2,000 to 2,500 Pearl Harbor survivors are believed to be still alive, and nine survivors of the USS Arizona are still living, according to Eileen Martinez, chief of interpretation for the USS Arizona Memorial.
"They are in their twilight years, so now is the time to honor them and thank them for their service," she said.
As has been the practice in previous years, veterans, relatives and visiting dignitaries bowed their heads for a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the time when the attack began.
The ceremony included a flyover and a guided missile destroyer honoring the USS Arizona.
Kathleen Chavez traveled to the ceremony from San Diego with her father, Raymond Chavez, who was stationed on the sweeper USS Condor at the time of the attack.
"This man is 101 years old," she said of her father, seated next to her. She and her father have been attending the memorials for decades, she said.
"This will be the last one he'll be able to travel (for)," she said. "This is our final one together."
The attack wounded 1,178 Americans. A dozen U.S. warships were sunk or heavily damaged in the attack, which also destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.
Herb Weatherwax, 96, was a switchboard operator at Pearl Harbor.
"I saw the whole thing. The Arizona engulfed in flames, it was a terrible sight," he said.
Weatherwax pointed to the motorized scooter he uses to get around, saying he lost his mobility after getting frostbite fighting in Europe, including at the Battle of the Bulge.
"I'm paying the price," he said. "But I'm not dead, and that's something. I'm still here."
(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)