A distinguished group of Wisconsin veterans, all Pearl Harbor survivors, recently experienced a trip of a lifetime. They took an Old Glory Honor Flight back to Hawaii.
It proved to be an extremely emotional four days for these veterans in Hawaii as they reflected, remembered, and shared stories with each other.
One of the most poignant moments during their return was a private visit to the site of the USS Arizona.
"Sometimes I can't remember what you told me last week, but I can remember everything, dates and everything else dating back 70 years ago when I was a 17-year-old kid that came here to Pearl Harbor," Firman Balza said.
Just hours after arriving in Hawaii, 18 Wisconsin veterans make history.
Home of the Brave tour historian Olav Holst says, "We have never seen a group of Pearl Harbor survivors this big come
back to Pearl Harbor from one state. This is a first."
Nearly 2 million people make the trip to Pearl Harbor each year. Only a few bring Pearl Harbor with them.
The veterans gather in an area known as Contemplation Circle. In the distance, the USS Arizona Memorial, triggering vivid memories of that fiery, horrific Sunday morning more than 70 years ago.
"It was chaos is what it was," Bud Sweeney said.
"Them Japanese planes came in from here and
here and here. I don't know how they didn't run into each other there
were so many of them," Balza said.
"And all I could see was those Rising Suns flying around," Joe Sweeney remembers. "Wow."
"We were hit by a torpedo," George Hutton said. "We took a lot of hits."
Hutton, Balza and the rest of these vets are about to pay their respects. They board a Navy boat and head out across the harbor, bound for the Arizona's sacred ruins.
"Permission to come aboard," one says.
The boat docks and the veterans disembark.
It's a slow climb up to the memorial. The old legs are far from what they used to be.
The veterans' minds, however, are clear and sharp.
"Very end over there, there's a sea plane
hangar. He dropped his bomb in that hangar and it was a great big red
ball of fire and a big black puff of smoke -- and then all hell broke
those," Balza described.
"And I was out far enough where I could see the Arizona when it blew out of the water I saw daylight under it," Joe Sweeney recalls.
"There was one fella kneeling on the floor,
and I grabbed him and said, 'It's too late to pray now. We better get
the hell out of here!'" Ed Miklavcic told us.
Of the 2,400 American casualties suffered during the two-hour attack, more than 1,100 served on the Arizona.
"And you take the Arizona, them guys got up there that morning and had their breakfast or whatever, and they're still right there," Balza remarks.
A memorial wall honors each and every one. Most are still entombed in the wreckage from which oil still seeps to the surface.
Whenever Pearl Harbor survivors return to the Arizona, the Navy holds a wreath laying ceremony, "to say thank you to our sailors, our Marines, our soldiers, and our airmen."
This one is different. There's another wreath, one in honor of 91-year-old veteran Mark Schaitel from the La Crosse area, who started this journey but sadly passed away on the flight to Pearl Harbor.
"Mark would not ask for us to call him a hero; he would say, 'I just did my job, I was taking care of my shipmates.' But I stand here before you today to tell you the truth: Signalman Third Class Mark Schaitel was a true American hero," Captain Lawrence Scruggs of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam said.
A flag is flown, and a bell rings out 58 times -- once for each Wisconsin service member killed at Pearl Harbor.
Out of respect for the fallen, interviews aren't allowed on the Arizona Memorial.
And that's a good thing because, in moments like this, pictures are all that's needed.
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