PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — Thousands gathered on a pier overlooking Pearl Harbor, observed a moment of silence and watched jets streak across the clear blue sky Wednesday in honor of the 75th anniversary of the attack that plunged the United States into World War II.
The crowd stood and clapped when a few dozen survivors joined active-duty servicemen and women and National Park Service rangers in dedicating wreaths to those killed. The attack left more than 2,300 service people dead.
Adm. Harry Harris of the U.S. Pacific Command also received a lengthy ovation when he talked in a speech about standing for the national anthem.
“You can bet that the men and women we honor today — and those who died that fateful morning 75 years ago — never took a knee and never failed to stand whenever they heard our national anthem being played,” Harris said to nearly a minute of clapping, whistles and whoops.
In recent months, San Francisco 49ers quarter Colin Kaepernick and others have knelt through the national anthem to protest police brutality and the treatment of minorities, drawing criticism and acclaim alike.
Reached later, Pacific Command spokesman Robert Shuford said Harris’ comments “speak for themselves.”
Wednesday’s ceremony started with the USS Halsey sounding its whistle to mark the start of the moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. — the same moment Japanese planes began their assault on Dec. 7, 1941. F-22 fighter jets broke the silence when they flew in formation overhead.
The event wrapped up with Marines firing a gun salute and the Pacific Fleet band playing taps.
Earlier in the day, Laura Stoller watched as crowds jostled for autographs and photos with survivors.
“All of these men who for so long didn’t get the recognition they deserve— they’re soaking it up. And it’s so fun to see,” said Stoller, who accompanied her adoptive grandfather and Pearl Harbor survivor Stan VanHoose of Beloit, Wisconsin, to the event.
VanHoose, 96, served on the USS Maryland.
Fellow survivor Jim Downing of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said he returns to Hawaii for the anniversary commemorations to be with his shipmates.
“We get together and have a great time and compare our stories,” he said.
Downing said surprise, fear, anger and pride overcame him as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Then a newlywed sailor, he recalled a Japanese plane flying low and slow in his direction as he rushed to his battleship from his home after hearing explosions and learning of the attack on the radio.
“When he got the right angle, he banked over, turned his machine guns loose,” Downing, now 103, said in an interview at a Waikiki hotel. “But fortunately he didn’t bank far enough so it went right over my head.”
The next aviator might have better aim, Downing remembers thinking. And with nowhere to hide, “I was afraid,” he said.
His ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by nine torpedoes.
“We were sinking, and everything above the water line was on fire,” he said.
Downing said he felt proud while watching sailors balance the capsizing ship by allowing water to seep in. The tactic let the giant battleship slide into mud below.
The West Virginia lost 106 men. Downing, who also served as the ship’s postmaster, spent two hours fighting fires and checking the name tags of the dead so he could write their families personal notes about how they died.
Ray Chavez was out on a minesweeper, the USS Condor, in the early hours before the attack. He remembers noticing with his shipmates that a mysterious submarine was lurking off the harbor.
“At 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, I look out and spotted a submarine that wasn’t supposed to be in that area,” the 104-year-old Chavez said.
The sailors reported the sighting and Chavez went home to sleep. He told his wife not to wake him because he hadn’t gotten any rest during the busy night.
“It seemed like I only slept about 10 minutes when she called me and said ‘we’re being attacked.’ And I said ‘who is going to attack us?’ She said ‘the Japanese are here and they’re attacking everything,'” Chavez said.
These days, many people treat Chavez and other Pearl Harbor survivors like celebrities, asking them for autographs and photos. But Chavez said it’s about the people who were lost.
“I’m honoring them, not myself,” he said.
Also Wednesday, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying he and first lady Michelle Obama join Americans in remembering those who gave their lives on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We can never repay the profound debt of gratitude we owe to those who served on our behalf,” he said.
The president said he will visit the USS Arizona Memorial later this month with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.