HONOLULU — Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Don Long was alone on an anchored military seaplane in the middle of a bay across the island from Pearl Harbor when Japanese warplanes started striking Hawaii on December 7, 1941, watching from afar as the attack that killed and wounded thousands unfolded.
The Japanese planes reached his base on Kaneohe Bay soon after Pearl Harbor was hit, and the young sailor saw buildings and planes explode all around him.
When the gunfire finally reached him, setting the aircraft ablaze, he jumped into the water and swam through the flames to safety.
Now 97, Long marked the 77th anniversary from his home in Napa, California on Friday.
He shared some of his memories with The Associated Press:
Decades of anniversaries
Long was fresh out of boot camp when he arrived in Hawaii in 1941.
“I got off that ship with my sea bag over my shoulder and we threw it on a truck and they carted me over to Kaneohe from Pearl Harbor where we had landed,” Long recalled.
It was a different experience when he was flown to Hawaii for the 75th anniversary in 2016.
“We came in on a first class United chartered jet. All the girls with the leis were there with the Hawaiian music,” he remembered. “We ended up not in a bunk in the barracks, but in a very nice ocean room.”
He attended a dinner where survivors were seated with dignitaries. At his table were Japan’s Honolulu-based consul general and his wife.
“He and his wife were there in full regalia,” Long said. He asked if they might be able to help him identify the pilot who attacked his plane.
“They did some searching I guess, or told somebody to do it, but within a month or so I got a message from them and the proof is not positive but they sent the information on three Japanese pilots. It was probably one of those three,” Long said.
Long no longer harbors ill will against Japan or its people.
“I don’t know when that feeling left me. But as you are probably well aware, we were taught to hate those people with all our hearts, and when you’re looking at one down a gun sight, you can’t really feel much love for anyone — that’s for darn sure,” he said.
“That has long since changed.”
Long has not always marked the anniversary like he does now.
“For about 50, 60 years or so, it was a day that rang a little bell to me, but I did not do much,” he said. “In the past 20 or so (years), I take part in some kind of activity that I’ll say is appropriate for the day.”
This year, Long was visiting school children before attending a Pearl Harbor ceremony atop Mount Diablo in Concord, California.
On Friday morning at about the time of the attack, Long spoke with the AP at his home as he prepared for the day: “I recall the day very, very distinctly,” he said, remembering “the day that started the war for our country that caused so, so much havoc. And I do recall the friends who never came back with, oh, much sadness.”
In his office are about 25 photos of old planes on the wall including one of the type of aircraft he was aboard that day.
There is also a photo of a Japanese plane similar to the one he believes attacked him.
He keeps about a half dozen medals, including his Purple Heart. On his dresser is a photo of himself as a pilot in 1943. He also keeps one of his wife, who died 10 years ago.
His 1999 Volkswagen camper van has two magnetic signs — one with a photo of him and another reading “Remember Pearl Harbor.” A special license plate notes he is a Pearl Harbor survivor.
A routine weekend
Long remembers that weekend of the attack as routine, “or so it started out,” he wrote in a 1992 essay that he provided to The Associated Press.
The 20-year-old from Minnesota enrolled in boot camp in March 1941, a “snotty nose kid, fresh off the farm.” That Sunday morning was his first day of operational duty with the squadron he had been assigned to about a month earlier.
He took a small boat toward the awaiting Catalina flying boat, cruising across the turquoise waters of windward Oahu with Hawaii’s 73-degree air splashing across his face.
“I recall it was a beautiful sunny day in Hawaii that morning,” Long said.
He began preparing for a solitary day of signal drills and regular maintenance checks. He settled into the pilot’s compartment to wait for contact from the beach signaling station to begin his drills.
A few minutes later, he heard the roar of airplanes overhead. In the distance, Long saw planes flying over hangars and buildings exploding. Another plane that was anchored nearby was hit and burst into flames.
Seconds later, a Japanese plane made a run toward his position. “The sequence of events during the next few minutes is not entirely clear,” he recalled.
Long jumped from the pilot’s seat and started looking for a life jacket, but bullets were immediately producing fountains of seawater inside the cabin. The fuel tanks in the wings were hit, and he was surrounded by flames.
He made a run for the rear exit. Gasoline was ablaze on the water, so he jumped into the bay and swam beneath the fire to get away from the sinking plane. He came to the surface and through the flames three times for air.
His military-issued high-top work shoes were bogging him down, so he dove underwater and removed them. Still far from shore, Long found a wooden channel marker and swam to it, ducking beneath the waves to hide every time a Japanese plane made a pass.
Once the Japanese were gone, Long spotted a boat that was searching for survivors and flagged them down.
Long burned his head, face and arms making his escape, but he considered himself in good health compared to the wounded and dead around him.
“Shipmates on the shore greeted me with comments like ‘we never expected to see you again,’” Long recalled. “I was told I looked pretty bad.”
“The attack was over, but much turmoil remained,” he wrote. “That’s it — the start of the first day of a long war.”