HONOLULU (Reuters Life!) - Navy veteran Louis Conter was a young sailor standing watch on the quarterdeck of the USS Arizona when Japanese bombers swarmed the skies over Oahu and attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor 69 years ago.
Within minutes that Sunday morning, the Arizona itself had exploded in flames, smoke and pandemonium. Conter was among the fortunate few hundred men to get off alive as the battleship crumpled and sank at its berth, taking 1,177 of its 1,400-member crew to their deaths.
The loss of life aboard the Arizona accounted for nearly half of the 2,390 Americans who perished at Pearl Harbor and other attack sites on the island on December 7, 1941, the day that drew the United States' into World War Two.
On Tuesday, as he has for 10 years on every anniversary of the surprise attack, Conter, now 89, will lay a wreath at the shrine built over the Arizona in memory of the dead, including the sailor with whom he was standing watch that morning.
"Every year it brings back big memories," Conter, of Grass Valley, California, told Reuters in an interview last week. "We look at the ones still aboard the ship out there as the heroes. We're the lucky ones. We came home and got married and had kids and now grand-kids. And they're still there."
Conter is part of an aging and ever-dwindling contingent of survivors still attending the annual commemorations. About 200 of the estimated 2,000-4,000 Pearl Harbor veterans alive today are expected to return on Tuesday.
There are only about 20 survivors left from the USS Arizona, and just five are healthy enough to travel, he said.
This year's 69th anniversary coincides with the dedication of a new $56 million Pearl Harbor visitors center, featuring indoor and outdoor galleries, interactive exhibits, two movie theaters, an amphitheater and an education center.
The facility, paid for with a mix of private and public funds, is a centerpiece of the World War Two Valor in the Pacific National Monument and a starting point for tours to the USS Arizona Memorial, a white structure on the harbor surface that stretches across the remains of the sunken battleship.
The visitors center also forms the backdrop for Pearl Harbor Day commemorations. Veterans, relatives and dignitaries bow their heads in silence at 7:55 a.m., the time at which the attack began, as military jets soar overhead in a "missing-man" formation and a parade of warships cruise by in salute.
In a new addition to this year's event, the ship's bell from the USS Arizona will peel while a survivor visits each of the 14 attack sites around the harbor, said National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez.
Besides the nearly 2,400 lives lost, the two-hour surprise attack wounded 1,178 people, sank or heavily damaged 12 U.S. warships and damaged or destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.
The 69th anniversary celebration began on Sunday and runs through Wednesday, with a remembrance of the USS Nevada, another battleship stricken at Pearl Harbor but salvaged and repaired in time to see World War II action both in Europe and in the Pacific.
Guns salvaged from the No. 2 main turret of Arizona were later installed on the Nevada and fired against Japanese forces on the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)