In past years, Pearl Harbor survivor Ed Guthrie of Omaha would sometimes attend the annual memorial ceremonies in Hawaii to meet old friends and remember Navy comrades who died that day.
This year, Guthrie, 98, is going for his family.
He and his wife, Janet, are leading 19 family members to the commemoration of the surprise attack by Japanese naval forces on U.S. military facilities in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.
“All the grandkids wanted me to go,” Guthrie said before his departure Thursday. “This will probably be the last time.”
Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the massive military strike that inflicted damage on 21 of 90 Navy ships anchored at Pearl Harbor, sinking five battleships: the Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia.
One-hundred-eighty-eight military aircraft were destroyed, and 159 more were damaged.
More than 2,400 American service members and 68 civilians died. Twelve-hundred military and civilian personnel were wounded.
Guthrie is one of about 150 Pearl Harbor survivors expected to take part in events commemorating the attack, including a ceremony the morning of Dec. 7 that is expected to include President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Starting last Thursday, at least 55 public events are planned through Dec. 11, including prayer services, concerts, interments, historic tours and showings of classic movies such as “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “From Here to Eternity” on Waikiki Beach.
“This is the 75th,” said Air Force Capt. Candice Dillitte, a spokeswoman for the committee in charge of many of the events. “We’re not sure if (the survivors) will be here for the next big event. We want to show appreciation for their sacrifice.”
Guthrie and his family aren’t the only Omahans who will be attending events in Pearl Harbor. Twenty-two members of the Benson High School Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps will be marching together in the 75th Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade on the evening of Dec. 7.
The 12 girls and 10 boys from Benson were selected based upon achievement in academics and junior ROTC activities and raised $3,000 apiece through fundraisers and donations from the Omaha Public Schools Foundation.
“It’s exciting to be able to experience this, especially so young,” said Irlanda Arenas, 17, commander of the cadet battalion. “It’s just amazing.”
The Benson junior ROTC students have studied Pearl Harbor and become friends with Guthrie, who was a special guest at a fundraising pancake feed they sponsored in the spring.
Guthrie apparently is the only Pearl Harbor survivor from Nebraska traveling to Hawaii for the commemoration, said his daughter, Peg Murphy, who has organized a new state chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors. Thirty-five people attended the first official meeting in October.
“We should be way more active now,” she said.
Only a handful of eyewitnesses to the carnage at Pearl Harbor are known to still be living in the state, Murphy said. Besides Guthrie, they include Howard Linn of Omaha, Lawrence Osterbuhr of Hildreth, Melvin Kennedy of Grand Island, Walter Barsell of Wahoo and Bob Winslow of Beatrice. Murphy is eager to know if there are more.
Another Pearl Harbor survivor, Earl Brandes of Central City, died less than two weeks ago, at age 95. He and Guthrie had become close friends through the survivors group and had held a reunion along with Osterbuhr in a park near Brandes’ retirement home last summer.
“I thought it was important to do,” Murphy, who organized the event, said at the time. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
The World War II memories may be fuzzy for some veterans, but Guthrie’s remain clear. He can still see the look in the eye of a Japanese fighter pilot who flew by, skimming the waves, as Guthrie sat on the deck of the destroyer tender USS Whitney, waiting to go to church.
“They were flying so low you could see the smiles on their faces and their white scarves,” he told The World-Herald in 2008.
He saw Battleship Row in flames.
“You could feel the explosion from the Arizona all over the harbor. ... It was something you couldn’t believe,” Guthrie said. “It was chaos. Nobody knew what to do.”
He was assigned to a boat crew to pick up dead and wounded from the oily water, and was later transferred to the USS Banner, an attack transport. He left the Navy in 1946.
Barsell, a 1939 Benson High graduate, watched the attack unfold from a hillside overlooking Pearl Harbor and neighboring Hickam Field. Days earlier he had left the crew of the cruiser USS Astoria — which was destined to be sunk nine months later in the battle of Savo Island — and was waiting in a barracks for reassignment to his shore command.
He was writing a letter in his room when he heard airplanes, and an explosion. From his window, he saw the battleships burning.
“There was all kinds of noise and confusion. We just couldn’t imagine what was going on,” Barsell said.
The sailors were ordered out of the barracks, but they had no weapons to fight back. They crossed the street to a pineapple field. They could see everything, like a film tableau.
But no movie can conjure up the odor of the attack. After 75 years, it remains pungent in his memory.
“An hour before the attack, you could smell gardenias in the air,” Barsell recalled. “After the attack, the aroma changed to burning oil and gasoline.”
He returned to Hawaii three times with the survivors group in the past but decided against traveling for the 75th anniversary events.
“My wife is gone, I’m in a rest home,” Barsell said. “I’d love to go back, but not now. I’ll keep my memories.”
Guthrie says he wasn’t eager for the long plane flight to Hawaii, but his family really wanted this trip.
“They insisted,” Janet Guthrie said. “They said it would probably be the last time the whole family goes together.”
Oh, and they’re flying first class.
The whole Guthrie clan bought matching navy blue shirts to wear in the parade. Ed will ride in a red convertible with other Pearl Harbor survivors.
Guthrie has spent years telling his Pearl Harbor story to younger generations who weren’t around then and don’t know much about World War II.
Now, he said, it’s time for the next generation to spread the word as his fades into history. He is proud that his daughter is carrying on with the sons and daughters organization.
“We need to keep the memory alive, for the young people to understand what happened that day,” Murphy said.
“They say ‘Pearl Harbor,’ ” she added, “but they don’t really know what that means.”