PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Yeoman 2nd Class Durrell Conner was wrapping Christmas presents aboard the USS California when he heard a commotion. Peering through a porthole of the battleship, the 23-year-old saw an airplane approaching low.
"He dropped something, and as he banked away I saw the red emblem of the Japanese on his wings so I knew we were under attack," Conner said. "He dropped the torpedo that struck the ship right below where I was standing."
The battleship shook like an earthquake, and the cryptographer rushed to his battle station where he coded and decoded messages for the California's commander. Since no messages were coming in, he joined a chain passing ammunition to Marines and sailors firing guns on the deck.
Another Japanese plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on the California, sinking the ship. The vessel lost nearly 100 of its 1,800 officers and crew.
On Tuesday, Conner plans to return to Pearl Harbor along with about 120 other survivors for a ceremony in remembrance of those who died in the Japanese attack 69 years ago. About 580 family and friends are due to join them, as are several hundred members of the public.
The Navy and the National Park Service are jointly hosting the event at a grassy site across the harbor from the sunken hull of the USS Arizona, where 1,177 lives were lost. In all, some 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed in the attack.
Conner, 92, attended the annual remembrance for the first time last year with his daughter.
He so enjoyed the displays of patriotism and tributes — including the sailors who lined the deck of the USS Lake Erie guided missile cruiser as it rendered honors to the Arizona — that he's coming back with his wife, four daughters and their husbands, and several grandchildren.
"The patriotic feeling that everybody had — it was just wonderful," Conner said. "I decided from then on, if I physically would be able, I would be there every year."
He reckons he'll keep coming back for a while.
"I play golf three times a week. I hope to be around for another five or 10 years," Conner said in a telephone interview from his home in Sun City, Calif.
This year, Conner will represent the California by laying a wreath for his fallen shipmates during the ceremony.
"It's really quite an honor," he said.
Conner, who made a career in the Navy after the war, said he probably wasn't as surprised by the Sunday morning assault as some of his fellow sailors because he had recently decoded a message from Washington telling his ship to be on the alert for a sneak attack.
His commanders, though, didn't envision they'd be fighting airplanes. They expected Japanese in Hawaii to somehow sabotage them — something that never happened.
"Everyday I was wondering 'Well is it going to be today?' — kind of laughing because I thought they were being overcautious," Conner said.
He recalled simply getting to work when the attack began.
"I just took it in stride, tried to do what was asked of me," said Conner.
At about 10 o'clock, Conner noticed the Stars and Stripes wasn't flying above the California because the assault began just as Marines usually raised the colors at 8 a.m. He saw the Marines had dropped the flag on the deck as they rushed to return fire.
So Conner and a seaman raised the flag, giving troops a morale boost as they struggled to fight back and save the wounded while battleships burned and sank.
"It should be up, and I knew it would raise morale," he said. "There was a motor launch going by right at the stern, and I knew some of the people, and they yelled my name and they said 'Hey!' and cheered. It was quite a thrill."
Conner is looking forward to seeing the new $56 million Pearl Harbor visitor's center the National Park Service just finished building to replace an older structure that had to be scrapped because it was sinking.
It has twice the exhibition space of the old facility, offering the 1.6 million people who visit the USS Arizona Memorial each year a deeper understanding of the attack that pushed the U.S. into World War II.
Conner hopes the new center will help the public remember the lessons of Dec. 7, particularly the need to be prepared.
"For anything that might happen. There are a lot of people that don't like us and would like to see us destroyed. We have to keep alert all the time," he said.
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