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HONOLULU — At the moment when, 75 years earlier, a quiet morning erupted in fire and a stunned nation went to war, the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor bowed their heads in silence to remember the day that changed history.

Their families, military leaders, politicians and dignitaries joined them in the overflow crowd that sat hushed on Kilo Pier. The guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey sounded its whistle in tribute to the veterans and to the fallen warriors still entombed in sunken ships beneath the waters of the harbor.

A few minutes later, Donald Stratton, one of the men who escaped the USS Arizona as it sunk, returned the Halsey's salute, watching as the ship glided past, its crew at attention on the deck.

The Wednesday memorial, marking 75 years since Japan propelled the United States into World War II with its surprise aerial attack, was filled with military pageantry and patriotic fervor, but the focus from the start was on the veterans, the survivors who returned to honor fellow warriors.

"We are inspired by their great gift to the world, the gift of freedom itself," said Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the Navy's Pacific Command. "A free nation cannot survive without those who are willing to place service to country in front of service to self."

Survivors were seated in the front rows at Kilo Pier on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Their numbers have dwindled in recent years and most of those who remain are now in their mid-90s, making Wednesday's tributes that much more poignant.

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A reminder of the years that have passed would occur later Wednesday, when the remains of two USS Arizona survivors were interred in the sunken ship they escaped.

Just five USS Arizona survivors remain. One, Lonnie Cook, did not travel to Hawaii. The other four made the trip for Wednesday's memorial, but Ken Potts fell ill and was unable to attend the morning event.

The other three survivors sat on the front row. Lauren Bruner, Stratton and Lou Conter shook hands and signed autographs, surrounded by people eager to meet them.

"It's been some long days," said Stratton, whose son and granddaughter helped raise the money to bring Stratton and three other Arizona survivors to Hawaii.

Counter, dressed in Navy whites and a red lei, smiled widely as people asked for his autograph and posed for pictures with him.

"We hardly have time to breathe," he said. "They have us busy."

He turned to a Boy Scout who wanted a picture with him and chatted for a moment.

Cloudy morning 

Some of the veterans and their families were in their seats before 6 a.m., answering an early morning call as they did 75 years earlier.

The skies over Pearl Harbor at dawn were clear, and the mountains in the distance shrouded with dark clouds, rain still a possibility.

As the Halsey's whistle broke the silence shortly before 8 a.m., F-22 fighters from the 199th Fighter Squadron flew a missing-man formation over the harbor.

Among the overflow crowd were the governors of Hawaii, David Ige, and Arizona, Doug Ducey, who was to lay a wreath on the Arizona memorial in a private ceremony later in the day.

Jacqueline Ashwell, superintendent of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, set a somber tone for the memorial as she talked about the symbolism of the sunken Arizona and Utah battleships and the memorials in the harbor.

"The memorials are a symbol of hope, a symbol of respect, of resilience," she said. "They touch the best ideals in all of our hearts."

Harris, the Navy commander, delivered rousing remarks that had the crowd on its feet several times. He praised the patriotism of the veterans and their courage in fighting through the war.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted it's first ever live streamed look at a Japanese mini submarine that was sunk in Pearl Harbor prior to the 1941 attack. (Dec. 7) AP

He drew some of the loudest cheers and a standing ovation with a nod to the Navy band's rendition of the national anthem and a reference to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, though he didn't mention the player by name.

"You can bet the men and women we honor today and those who died that fateful morning 75 years ago never took a knee and never failed to stand when they heard our national anthem being played," Harris said.

He used lyrics from the anthem as threads through the first part of his remarks.

Harris talked about the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, "a morning not unlike this when people not unlike us were getting ready for another day in paradise."

Some of the survivors in the front rows, he said, were preparing for time ashore, unaware they would soon find themselves at war.

"No one knew it would be the last moment of peace for nearly four years."

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A milestone year for anniversary

This Pearl Harbor Day holds greater significance, for its milestone year — the 75th anniversary — and because it may be the last time many survivors return for such an observance. Most veterans of the attack are in their mid-90s and fewer attend memorial services as each year passes.

President Obama did not attend the ceremonies Wednesday, but will return to Hawaii after Christmas and meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for another historic moment. No sitting Japanese leader has visited Pearl Harbor in the 75 years since the attack.

The early-morning attack killed 2,403 Americans. Nearly half the casualties occurred on the USS Arizona, where 1,177 of the 2,512-man crew perished. Eighteen ships were sunk or run aground, 188 American aircraft were destroyed and nearly as many were damaged.

The Japanese launched the attack from six aircraft carriers, dispatching fighters and bombers in two waves. The Americans were caught unprepared to fight back in force. The Arizona sank 14 minutes after the attack began and many U.S. aircraft never took off from the bases.

The day after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech on the defining moment, when he described the attack as “a date which will live in infamy,” and propelled the nation into war.

The Arizona, which had never fired its big guns at an enemy in battle, emerged as a potent symbol for a wartime America.

Many of the survivors did not return to Pearl Harbor for years after the attack, but annual observances have drawn some of them back year after year in recent decades.

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A private moment 

Some of Wednesday’s events were private, including one of the most poignant. In the late afternoon, the remains of two Arizona crewmen who survived the attack were interred in the wreckage of their former ship.

John Anderson, who died in November 2015, and Clarendon Hetrick, who died in April, were recognized for their service in a ceremony aboard the USS Arizona Memorial.

Family members gathered on the white memorial and said their final farewells. Gun salutes echoed across the harbor.

Divers took urns with the cremated remains of the two men, slipping beneath the water’s surface to place them inside the barbette of Arizona's gun turret four.

The honor is accorded sailors and Marines who were assigned to the Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. Since 1982, when the practice began, 39 crewmembers have been interred in the ship.

A third crewman, Raymond Haerry, died in September and will be interred in the ship next year.

For Anderson’s family, the moment was especially meaningful: His twin brother, Delbert “Jake” Anderson, died aboard the Arizona in the attack, one of the 1,177 crewmen killed on the ship.

The other survivors and friends of the two men paid their respects early Wednesday evening.

Bob Hetrick watched the divers take his dad's ashes down into the ship. Clare Hetrick had always talked about returning to the Arizona, Bob said, a ship he grew attached to in a short stint on board.

"He's safe now," Bob said after the ceremony. "He's back on the ship with his shipmates.

"He's home. He's back home."

Follow Shaun McKinnon on Twitter: @shaunmckinnon

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