Following a scaled-back 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, COVID-19 has claimed another internationally recognized event for aged war veterans — the annual Pearl Harbor remembrance.
In what may be a first in decades, no eyewitnesses to the day of infamy will attend the 7:55 a.m. ceremony marking the terrible moment 79 years ago when Japanese warplanes dove out of the sky to attack Oahu.
To keep the numbers down and spacing up, about a dozen mostly local World War II veterans were previously invited for this year’s Dec. 7, 1941, observance.
But in another somber milestone that reflects the dangers of the virus for older people, the decision was made to not have any of the veterans, now close to 100 years old, attend the event.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we will not have WWII veterans at the ceremony but are ensuring they all have the information to view it virtually,” said Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Hawaii.
The National Park Service and Navy plan to work with local World War II veterans who want to visit the Arizona Memorial.
The largely virtual event will have no public attendance.
The three museums that operate in the USS Arizona’s Memorial’s orbit, meanwhile, are in varying stages of reopening, with the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum reporting it is in the midst of its most challenging year economically since opening in 2006.
Three years ago, about 20 Pearl Harbor survivors alone and 2,000 members of the public came out for the Dec. 7 commemoration.
This year’s event follows the pattern of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II held on Sept. 2 on the fantail of the battleship Missouri in Pearl Harbor.
Approximately 46 World War II veterans were expected from the mainland, but organizers ultimately decided against the travel with widespread COVID-19.
Still, an 82-year-old pilot on a vintage PBY Catalina flying boat who was on Oahu for a series of aerial parades marking the war’s end came down with coronavirus shortly after leaving Hawaii and died.
On this National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Lou Conter, 99, one of just two remaining USS Arizona survivors, will provide a prerecorded video welcome and introduce a veteran tribute.
Conter, who lives in Grass Valley, Calif., and has long been a goodwill ambassador for his Arizona shipmates, but also for all American casualties from Dec. 7, 1941, said he’s disappointed he can’t be there.
“I like to pay tribute to the 2,403 men (and women) that got killed that day, including 1,177 of my shipmates on the Arizona,” he said in a phone interview. “I love to come out there every year and pay them my respects.”
But with coronavirus and quarantine or test requirements to enter Hawaii, “we all just canceled out until next year,” Conter said, referencing his family.
His doctor told him, “Yeah, I’ll just keep you alive until you are 100 next September,” Conter said with a laugh. “Then we’ll go for the 80th (anniversary). We’re all planning on coming next year.”
This year’s commemoration, which will be live-streamed, will include a speech by Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, and prerecorded wreath presentations at bases around Oahu.
The event will be aired on Pearl Harbor National Memorial’s Facebook page and at www.pearlharborevents.com.
This year’s theme is “Above and Beyond the Call” and focuses on “Battlefield Oahu” and the fact that Dec. 7, 1941, encompassed the entire island of Oahu.
The war in the Pacific would be brutally waged for more than three more years before Japan unconditionally surrendered on the deck of the Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay.
Conter reminds people that “Pearl Harbor was only 3-1/2 hours of a four-year war.”
He was on the stern of the Arizona when a Japanese aerial bomb pierced the bow of the battleship, igniting a million pounds of gunpowder. In the devastation that followed, he helped badly injured men get off the ship.
Conter went to flight school in early 1942 as an enlisted pilot, got his wings in November and went to VP-11, the Black Cats, flying PBY Catalinas near New Guinea — getting shot down twice.
Conter did night dive-bombing and torpedo runs. In September 1943, a shell hit his flying boat and it caught fire. The burning plane landed at sea and everyone got out — but without life jackets or life rafts.
One crew member said “you guys say your prayers — we’re 7 miles offshore and it’s windy and we’ve got sharks all around us,” Conter recalled.
“And I said bull____. I said, ‘Get in a line and hold hands and tread water lightly and help each other until we get out of this thing,’ ” Conter said.
Another PBY flew over and dropped life rafts, which the crew of 10 used to reach a Japanese-occupied island. A passing U.S. Navy PT boat rescued the men.
Conter also helped rescue over 200 Australian coast watchers on the narrow Sepik River in New Guinea over three days with Japanese forces nearby.
Meanwhile, the museums in Pearl Harbor that tell the stories of Conter and other World War II veterans are struggling with coronavirus restrictions, too.
The Arizona Memorial visitor center will be open to the public at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, with memorial programs running every 30 minutes from noon to 3:30 p.m.
Kalli Abernathy, a spokeswoman for the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, said the site was to open to the public on Wednesday with a modification to its hours.
The museum’s annual For Love of Country Gala on Dec. 5 — its largest annual fundraiser — will be completely virtual this year.
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park reopened to the public on Nov. 6.
The Battleship Missouri Memorial remains closed, with a hoped-for reopening in mid-December. Spokeswoman Jaclyn Hawse said while the museum would love to welcome back visitors in time for Dec. 7, that’s unlikely.
“We can’t speak for other Pearl Harbor historic sites partners, but the Mighty Mo remains closed, as the USS Missouri Memorial Association simply cannot sustain operations under the current visitor scenario,” she said.