It was a beautiful Sunday morning. The sun was shining and twin rainbows stretched across the sky. That’s how Clark J. Simmons, a former chief officer in the U.S. Navy, remembers December 7, 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in Hawaii.
Simmons, 95 and one of the few remaining survivors of the attack, was aboard the USS Utah that morning when the first bombs were dropped.
“We were still waking up, deciding whether we were going to go to breakfast or not, and all hell broke loose,” Simmons told visitors Wednesday at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum during a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the attack.
Simmons recalled that shortly after the bombs fell, the ship began to turn over and sink. He ran up to the captain’s quarters, jumped out and swam to safety on Ford Island, located in the center of Pearl Harbor, amid a shower of bullets.
He said he escaped with a few men but never saw them again.
Joining Simmons at the ceremony was Aaron Chabin, a former corporal in the Army’s 27th Infantry Regiment.
Chabin, 93, said he was in his bunk reading the newspaper when he first heard the explosions.
“Someone went out on to the balcony and yelled, ‘Japs’,” he said.
Chabin then grabbed his weapon and went to his post in the communications office where he stayed until the attack was over. He said he could not see anything but heard the dropping bombs.
The attacks on Pearl Harbor signaled the start of the United States’ participation in World War II, which ended in 1945.
Wednesday’s commemoration ceremony kicked off with the Star-Spangled Banner, sung by 11-year-old Miles Caton from Manhattan.
Caton, who has been singing since he was 3 years old, said he was grateful to participate in the event.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “I know a lot of people died. It’s an honor to be here and meet these men.”
Susan Marenoff-Zausner, the president of the Intrepid museum, agreed.
“The survivors who came here today were part of a pivotal time in our history,” said Zausner. “To be able to have them here, commemorate them and honor those we lost is an amazing feeling.”
During the ceremony a wreath was blessed by a rabbi and handed to Simmons and Chabin while “Amazing Grace” was played on the bagpipes by John McManus.
Then, as a Navy veteran played taps on a trumpet, Simmons and Chabin threw the wreath over the deck into the Hudson River and stood in salute.
In late December, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe has said he plans to visit Pearl Harbor. He will be the first Japanese Prime Minister to do so since the attack.
Simmons said Abe’s visit means a lot to him as he lost many friends that day. Chabin, however, was less enthusiastic.
“It could have happened earlier, because we were the ones that were attacked,” said Chabin.
Both men agreed that the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of the war was justified.
“If they hadn’t, chances are a lot of us wouldn’t be here,” said Chabin. “I think it was the right thing to do because it shortened the war.”
Brian Neilsen traveled three hours from Albany Wednesday to watch a commemoration ceremony at Pearl Harbor that was shown at the Intrepid via live stream. Neilsen’s father, who died three years ago, served during World War II. The anniversary of the attack is still very emotional for him.
“I couldn’t do what he did,” said Neilsen. “It still breaks me.”