It's been 46 1/2 years since the battleship USS Utah was torpedoed and sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
And this week 70 surviving members of the ship's 610-man crew held their first reunion.They gathered in the Doubletree Hotel in Salt Lake City and also visited the State Capitol and the University of Utah Naval Science Building, where the ship's bell and other reminders of the past are located.
About 400 men were aboard the ship when it was sunk, and 120 are believed to be still alive today. The bodies of four or five men who died aboard the 550-foot-long vessel were recovered, but the bodies of 58 others were never found.
This week's reunion was a time for renewing acquaintances and sharing experiences, mostly gained after the ship caught fire and overturned, and during rescue and burial operations.
Donald I. Comly, a Salt Lake resident, is slow to talk about the events that brought him and others to the reunion. The 70-year-old veteran said he doesn't remember many details about Pearl Harbor.
Robert V. Johnson, Comly's friend who was on the USS Utah with him when it was torpedoed, said Comly does remember. But he said Comly is reserved and only being modest.
"He saved my life," said Johnson, Rockville, Md. He said he and his wife, Annette, came to the reunion primarily to see Comly.
Johnson said he and Comly were sitting at a table playing cards when the first torpedo hit the ship.
"It felt like another ship had bumped into us," he said. As the two got up to investigate, the ship was hit by a second torpedo. Johnson said they realized it was more than just another ship bumping into them.
An announcement over the ship's public address system blurted that the Japanese were attacking. Johnson ran for one of the ship's ladders, but Comly held him back, warning that he'd be trampled to death. Later, after crewmen were told to abandon the ship, Johnson said Comly prevented him from jumping off the wrong side of the sinking ship and being killed.
Johnson said Comly also grabbed him and pushed him down on the deck as Japanese fighters strafed the ship with gunfire. He said he is convinced Comly's calm, more-experienced attitude and wisdom helped save his life.
Comly shrugs off Johnson's claims, saying he doesn't remember such details. He remembers being more confused than afraid during the attack.
"It was like getting hit in an automobile accident," he said. Comly attributes his survival to the fact that he was only one level below deck when the attack occurred.
Johnson said he had not kept in contact with Comly and had eagerly looked forward to the reunion Friday.
"It was a very emotional experience for me," he said.
Others attending the reunion included Karl A. Johnson, Livermore, Calif., who helped organize the reunion; Jack B. Vaessen, San Mateo, Calif., and another Salt Laker, Milton P. Matson.
Vaessen received the Navy Cross for bravery after being trapped in the ship when it overturned. He was rescued when the sound of his pounding on the bottom of the ship with a wrench was heard by a crewman from another ship.
Karl A. Johnson said he was sitting reading the Sunday newspaper on the second deck of the ship when it was hit by the first torpedo about 7:55 a.m.
"When it hit I didn't know what happened. The whole ship shook violently and somebody hollered, `Japanese air raid, honest to God!"
Karl Johnson, who showed pictures taken of the Utah before and after the attack, said he first thought that a bomb had been dropped near the ship.
"I didn't know we had been hit by a torpedo. We took two torpedoes and the ship filled up very quickly," he said as he reminisced with others and proudly showed clippings and a Pearl Harbor Survivors Association jacket.
"Since the USS Utah represents the state of Utah and since Salt Lake City is the capital, we thought it was appropriate to have the first reunion here," said Karl Johnson, who retired after 221/2 years in the Navy.
During part of the group's visit to Temple Square they met Renee Hicken, a tour guide who called the Deseret News to express her feelings about the seamen and their bravery.
"They are very proud they were on the USS Utah. They were very happy to see each other and to re-talk experiences. We can never honor veterans too much. I especially think that is true of the younger generation. I don't think we understand too well, because we've never lived through a war," said Hicken, 25, who was born 21 years after Pearl Harbor.