PEARL HARBOR (NNS) -- "I've been looking forward to this moment for quite a while now, and it's finally near," says Petty Officer 1st Class Wren Pettett of Atoka, Oklahoma. "You always hear so much about the history of Pearl Harbor, but to actually be a part of that history... ."
His voice trails off as he tries to find words that describe his emotions. Over his shoulder, the sun begins to set behind the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and to his right, the USS Arizona Memorial. Each day, Pettett has the honor of driving one of the white boats that tour the waters of Pearl Harbor, as visitors from around the world come to pay their respects and learn about the history that lives in infamy after that fateful December day in 1941.
Today, Pettett drove around perhaps the most important kind of visitor: the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attacks and their families, here to honor the 75th anniversary of one of the United States' darkest days. For the young Oklahoman, he expressed that "opportunity of a lifetime" doesn't begin to justify the honor.
"Every day, when I'm driving one of these boats and we go by the resting place of the USS Oklahoma, the USS Utah and the USS Arizona, the humbling feeling of honor and privilege I feel to take people around this beautiful harbor is indescribable," said Pettett. "But to have the honor of driving a boat carrying survivors of the Pearl Harbor attacks for the 75th anniversary ... it brings a new kind of self-worth to this job. It makes me happy to be alive in this moment, to serve at this particular moment in history."
As the survivors and their family members make their way onto a white boat, moments from reuniting with the memories of a day long past but never forgotten, Seaman Erwinn Garrett of Houston, Texas, renders honors to a Medal of Honor recipient. He then helps a survivor in a wheelchair get up the brow. A gentleman's wife appears and he helps her aboard and then to her seat. For him, this isn't his job or duty. It's his way to say thank you and pay his respects to the sacrifices these men and their families made almost eight decades ago.
"This is my first duty station," said Garrett. "When I found out I was coming to Pearl Harbor right out of basic training, I was elated. I knew it meant I'd be here for the 75th anniversary, and that's a once in a lifetime opportunity for anyone, not just a service member."
Garrett, like Pettett, says he needs a moment to take in the fullness of his day, with the survivors, before he can accurately describe its impact on him.
"If there's one thing I've learned from the survivors here these last few days, it's that there really is no shipmate that gets left behind," said Garrett. "These men didn't just work together; they lived together and died together. And for them to come back year after year, decade after decade, to honor their fallen shipmates, it sets a precedent for any generation of our Navy."
The survivors take their seats and the boat pulls away from the pier. A light rain begins to fall as the tour makes its way out past historic Ford Island and heads first towards the USS Utah Memorial. Chief Petty Officer Michael Sears from Clatskanie, Oregon, the narrator for this tour, immediately lets the survivors know how grateful the Navy is for their service and sacrifice. Sears has voluntarily narrated this tour dozens of times in the past, but this one holds special meaning.
"I previously worked in public affairs here in Hawaii and I've always helped out with the white boat tour narration, because it's a fun thing to do and the atmosphere is always good," said Sears. "I do this because, to me, history will be repeated if it's not known. The time we spend with these survivors and learn about the things they had to endure in their time of service is the only way that we'll ever honor their sacrifice and prevent this kind of attack from ever happening again."
At the Arizona Memorial, the survivors and their families return to the resting place of the 1,177 Sailors who lost their lives during the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Oahu. Some weep openly, while others pray silently to their fallen friends. Others embrace and share memories of how much the area has changed since they were stationed here, all those years ago. One survivor stands before the wall of names, at the end of the memorial, and points out the names of men he may have known during his time of service. Nearly 75 years after a day that would help define their entire lives, these men came back to pay their respects to those who never lived past that day.
"It's surreal, when you try to take it all in," said Seaman Anthony Ruiz, of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, one of the ushers on the white boat tour. "This 75th remembrance has given my career a new meaning going forward. These veterans are why we're here today, why this country is as great as it is today and why our Navy is the best of its kind. It's because of them, and the sacrifices they've made. To just have the chance to show my appreciation for that and to be a part of this anniversary is something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
As evening colors are rendered and the sun dips under the Pacific horizon, the white boat eases off the dock of the memorial and heads back to land. Survivors and active duty Sailors sit next to one another and share some of their adventures. Some look back at the memorial and wave to their fallen shipmates.
It isn't goodbye. It's a salute to their timeless sacrifice.