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Pearl Harbor Survivors Pause to Remember Fallen at Wheeler

By Lisa Ferdinando DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD, Hawaii, Dec. 6, 2016 — A lone bugler played taps as Pearl Harbor veterans saluted in silence, pausing to remember the more than 30 men killed here 75 years ago, as Japan began its attack on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

More than two dozen World War II veterans took part in the ceremony here yesterday. Among them was Army veteran Thomas Petso, who was at Wheeler Army Airfield when he saw the Japanese planes coming in overhead.

During a wreath-laying and tribute ceremony at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2016, Pearl Harbor survivor Thomas Petso describes the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the field. More than 30 men were killed and 50 injured at the airfield in the attack. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando
During a wreath-laying and tribute ceremony at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2016, Pearl Harbor survivor Thomas Petso describes the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the field. More than 30 men were killed and 50 injured at the airfield in the attack. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando
During a wreath-laying and tribute ceremony at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2016, Pearl Harbor survivor Thomas Petso describes the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the field. More than 30 men were killed and 50 injured at the airfield in the attack. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando Pearl Harbor 75th Anniversary
During a wreath-laying and tribute ceremony at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2016, Pearl Harbor survivor Thomas Petso describes the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the field. More than 30 men were killed and 50 injured at the airfield in the attack. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

"They scared the hell out of us. We ran for our lives because they opened fire and we knew we were in trouble," Petso said, adding he and the other soldiers ran back to nearby Schofield Barracks to get their weapons and begin the battle.

Petso shared his story at the remembrance ceremony and wreath presentation, held in a hangar that was hit in the attacks, Dec. 7, 1941. More than 50 people were wounded at Wheeler.

"For those of you who were here this day, this is truly hallowed ground," said Army Maj. Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, commander of the 25th Infantry Division.

The Japanese wanted to take out military air assets so U.S. planes would be unable to take out the Japanese bombers, Cavoli explained.

"Just before eight in the morning, Wheeler was struck by 25 Japanese dive bombers. They destroyed as many aircraft as they could and they wanted to kill the pilots who flew them as well," he said.

Memories of the Attack

Petso, who was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, was playing football on the field at the airfield when the Japanese planes began heading straight for them.

Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Base during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. Navy photo
Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Base during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. Navy photo
Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Base during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. Navy photo Pearl Harbor 75th Anniversary
Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Base during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. Navy photo

"I was just 18 years old. I was a sergeant in the infantry and we were challenged by Wheeler field to play them in football that Sunday morning," he said.

"When I looked up in the sky and I couldn’t believe what those strange planes were doing coming towards us," he said.

After he rushed back to Schofield, the Japanese soon made their way there as well, he recalled, attacking them about three times that he can remember.

"But anyway, the most important thing is that a lot of us survived that morning," he said.

Tribute to the Greatest Generation

Wheeler Army Airfield, which was home to the 15th and 18th Pursuit Groups, still bears physical reminders of what happened that day, Cavoli said.

"Today, 75 years later, the bomb scars are still etched in the tarmac's concrete, just as the edging of the hot molten shrapnel remains as it splayed out 360 degrees from those explosions," the general said. "Bullet holes, scars remain in these buildings; you can see them even today."

Words cannot adequately describe the bravery and the magnitude of the contributions of the men and women who served the nation in World War II, Cavoli said.

"You veterans of the Greatest Generation rallied to defend freedom, three and an half years later, you emerged victorious for us -- victorious against the forces of evil in the largest global conflict in history," Cavoli said.

(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter @FerdinandoDoD)