PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – One by one, aging survivors from ships sunk 65 years ago Thursday in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor laid wreaths under life preserver rings honoring their ships.
Nearly 500 survivors bowed their heads at 7:55 a.m., the minute planes began bombing the harbor in a surprise attack that thrust the United States into World War II.
"America in an instant became the land of the indivisible," said former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, the author of "The Greatest Generation," who spoke at the shoreside ceremonies. "There are so many lessons from that time for our time, none greater than the idea of one nation greater than the sum of its parts."
The veterans, most in Hawaiian aloha shirts, were honored with prolonged applause at the solemn ceremony near where some of the ships remain rusting and moss-covered under the harbor's waters.
Many were treating the gathering as their last, uncertain if they would be alive or healthy enough to travel to Hawaii for the next big memorial ceremony, the 70th anniversary.
"It is because of you and people like you that we have the freedoms we enjoy today," Capt. Taylor Skardon said after relating each ship's story at the end of the ceremony.
A priest gave a Hawaiian blessing and Marines performed a rifle salute.
For many it could be their last return to the World War II attack site.
"Sixty-five years later, there's not too many of us left," said Don Stratton, a seaman 1st class who was aboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. "In another five years I'll be 89. The good lord willing, I might be able to make it. If so, I'll probably be here. I might not even be around. Who knows. Only the good Lord knows."
Stratton and other survivors were boarding a boat to the white memorial straddling the sunken hull of the USS Arizona, where they will lay wreaths and lei in honor of the dead.
"We thank those who lost their lives 65 years ago, and we honor the survivors and their families who are with us here today," said Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle.
The Arizona sank in less than nine minutes after a 1,760 pound armor-piercing bomb struck the battleship's deck and hit its ammunition magazine, igniting flames that engulfed the ship.
More people died on the Arizona than any other ship as 1,177 servicemen, or about 80 percent of its crew, perished.
Altogether, the surprise attack killed 2,390 Americans and injured 1,178.
Twelve ships sank and nine vessels were heavily damaged. Over 320 U.S. aircraft were destroyed or heavily damaged by the time the invading planes were done sweeping over military bases from Wheeler Field to Kaneohe Naval Air Station.
Japanese veterans who participated in the attack as navigators and pilots will also pay their respects, offering flowers at the Arizona memorial for the American and Japanese who died.
Japan lost 185 men, mostly on dive-bombers, fighters and midget submarines.
Some Japanese veterans and American survivors have reconciled in the decades since.
Japanese dive bomber pilot Zenji Abe has apologized to American survivors for the sudden attack, ashamed his government failed to deliver a declaration of war in time for the assault.
The Japanese aviators who carried out the attack thought the declaration had already been made by the time they started bombing, Abe has said.