PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — This will be their last visit to this watery grave to share stories, exchange smiles, find peace and salute their fallen friends.
This, they say, will be their final farewell.
With their number quickly dwindling, survivors of Pearl Harbor will gather Thursday one last time to honor those killed by the Japanese 65 years ago, and to mark a day that lives in infamy.
‘‘This will be one to remember,’’ said Mal Middlesworth, president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. ‘‘It’s going to be something that we’ll cherish forever.’’
The survivors have met here every five years for four decades, but they’re now in their 80s or 90s and are not counting on a 70th reunion. They have made every effort to report for one final roll call.
‘‘We’re like the dodo bird. We’re almost extinct,’’ said Middlesworth, now an 83-year-old retiree from Upland, Calif., but then — on Dec. 7, 1941 — an 18-year-old Marine on the USS San Francisco.
Nearly 500 survivors from across the nation were expected to make the trip to Hawaii, bringing with them 1,300 family members, numerous wheelchairs and too many haunting memories.
Memories of a shocking, two-hour aerial raid that destroyed or heavily damaged 21 ships and 320 aircraft, that killed 2,390 people and wounded 1,178 others, that plunged the United States into World War II and set in motion the events that led to atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
‘‘I suspect not many people have thought about this, but we’re witnessing history,’’ said Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the USS Arizona Memorial. ‘‘We are seeing the passing of a generation.’’
The attack may have occurred 65 years ago, but survivors say they can still hear the explosions, smell the burning flesh, taste the sea water and hear the cries.
‘‘The younger ones were crying, ’Mom! Mom! Mom!’’’ said Edward Chun, who witnessed the attack from the Ten-Ten dock, just a couple hundred yards away from Battleship Row.
Chun, 83, had just begun his workday as a civilian pipe fitter when he was thrust into assisting in everything from spraying water on the ships to aiding casualties.
‘‘From the time the first bomb dropped and for the next 15 minutes, it was complete chaos,’’ he said. ‘‘Nobody knew what was going on. Everybody was running around like a chicken with their head cut off.’’
Chun saw the Oklahoma and West Virginia torpedoed by Japanese aircraft. He heard the tapping of sailors trapped in the hulls of sunken ships. He escaped death when Ten-Ten was strafed, leaving behind dead and wounded.
‘‘How I never got hit, I don’t know,’’ said Chun, who was later drafted and served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. ‘‘I’ll tell you a secret: When your number comes up, you’re going to go. Well, every morning I get up, I change my number.’’
Everett Hyland doesn’t know how he stayed alive when almost everyone around him didn’t. He was radioman aboard the Pennsylvania, which was in Dry Dock No. 1, and was helping transport ammunition to the anti-aircraft gun when a bomb exploded.
Badly burned, Hyland regained consciousness 18 days later, on Christmas night. During that time, his older brother visited.
‘‘The only way he knew it was me was the tag on my toe,’’ Hyland said. ‘‘He (later) told me we looked like roast turkeys lined up.’’
Today, scar tissue covers most of his arms and legs.
‘‘I got a quick facial out of it. I used to be a freckled-faced kid,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t have any lips. They could fix faces, but they couldn’t build any lips.’’
And he was lucky.
Many of the dead were teenage sailors and Marines away from home for the first time. They died before they had an opportunity to get married, have children, build lives.
Four in five servicemen on the USS Arizona — 1,177 in all — did not survive the day. It was the greatest loss of life of any ship in U.S. naval history. They remain entombed in the battleship’s sunken hull, which still seeps oil every few seconds, leaving a colorful sheen on the harbor water.
The survivors say they have more than horrific memories to offer. ‘‘Remember Pearl Harbor’’ is just the first half of the association’s motto; the rest is ‘‘Keep America alert.’’
Martinez said many Pearl Harbor survivors were disheartened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, ‘‘as if they had not done their job hard enough.’’
Once again, it seemed that America had been caught sleeping. Interest in Pearl Harbor and its aging survivors surged. The old soldiers are much in demand — to sign autographs, walk in parades, speak to classrooms and pose for pictures. Visits to the USS Arizona Memorial are at record levels.
Not that everyone sees similarities between the two attacks. ‘‘There is no comparison,’’ Hyland said. ‘‘That was terrorists killing a pile of civilians. Here, you had professional fighters versus professional fighters. Two different things.’’
There are those who are unable to forgive the Japanese, But others testify to the power of reconciliation.
‘‘There are some guys that are going to die with hate in their heart. I don’t have in me any hatred in my heart,’’ said 87-year-old survivor Lee Soucy, of Plainview, Texas. ‘‘They were doing their job just like we were.’’
Hyland, who was almost killed in the attack, married a woman from Japan. They met at the 50th Pearl Harbor anniversary and wed the following year.
‘‘I got over it a long time ago,’’ he said.
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who dubbed Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II ‘‘the greatest generation,’’ agreed to be keynote speaker for Thursday’s ceremony. A moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. was to mark the time when the attack began.
Martinez, the USS Arizona historian, likened it to another reunion 68 years ago — the final gathering of Civil War veterans in Gettysburg, Pa., when aging warriors in blue and gray shook hands and shared war stories. In 1938, as in 2006, the nation faced an uncertain future in a world gripped by conflict.
‘‘The passing of that generation had its moment and we’re going to have ours,’’ he said.
But some veterans don’t believe, or refuse to accept, that this will be the last major gathering.
‘‘They claimed the 60th was going to be the last one. Now they have the 65th. When they have the 70th, then they’ll be claiming, ’This will be the last one,’’’ Hyland said. ‘‘They’ve been crying wolf too many times.’’
Hyland does accept the fact that their numbers are dwindling fast.
‘‘We all have our turn and our turn is getting closer,’’ he said.
But until then, they are drawn to Pearl Harbor, and to each other. Military historian Douglas Smith, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says they are proud of their service and eager to return ‘‘to their glory days,’’ but most of all they revel in the bonds they formed long ago, when they were young.
The bond is so strong that some ask to have their ashes interred inside the Arizona, laid to rest with shipmates who were not so fortunate as to survive Dec. 7, 1941.
‘‘They’re coming home,’’ Middlesworth said. ‘‘They feel they’re coming home.’’