Two survivors of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor stood aboard a World War II-era destroyer at Charlestown Navy Yard Thursday, watching a ceremonial wreath-laying and gun salute commemorating the 76th anniversary of the attack.
Dozens of veterans, service members, civilians, and public officials attended the event onboard the USS Cassin Young, a destroyer named after a Navy commander and Pearl Harbor hero, on a sunny, chilly afternoon.
Veterans of several wars were among the crowd of onlookers on the pier next to and on the vessel, including the two survivors — Freeman K. Johnson of Centerville and Emery Arsenault of Peabody.
Johnson, wearing a military baseball cap, and Arsenault, in his pin-covered garrison cap, watched as colors were presented, patriotic songs were sung, and several speakers remembered those who served and died at Pearl Harbor decades ago.
“Our role in the National Park Service is to preserve and illustrate our nation’s history, so that everyone can learn our shared stories and ask themselves, ‘So what do these events of the past have to do with me today in my times?’ ” said Michael Creasey, National Parks of Boston general superintendent and host of the commemorative service.
“While our memories may be faded by time, the spirit of what all of our veterans did to keep our country safe is remembered in ceremonies like this one,” he said.
Creasey was joined by speakers including park ranger Bill Casey, who spoke of Commander Cassin Young’s life-saving actions aboard the USS Vestal on Dec. 7, 1941, and the hero’s grandson, Cassin Young II.
Casey recounted the attack on the USS Vestal and on the USS Arizona, which was anchored nearby.
Young then told of how his grandfather had planned to attend Mass and play golf on that “typically beautiful Hawaiian Sunday morning” more than seven decades ago, before he was forced into the role of a hero.
Both the Vestal and Arizona quickly came under fire from enemy aircraft as the attack on Pearl Harbor began. Young was flung from the Vestal into the oil-covered waters of the harbor as bombs were striking the vessels, while the Japanese attack continued around them.
Young survived the explosion and got back aboard the Vestal, then directed an effort to get the ship to land and safely ground it. Young’s actions ensured that the Vestal avoided the fate of the Arizona, which was destroyed in the bombing.
“He’d not only survived the blast, and the flaming waters of Pearl Harbor, he swam back to save the ship,” Young said of his grandfather. “Because of this action, the USS Vestal and the vast majority of its crew members, plus some Arizona survivors, lived to fight another day.”
After Young spoke, Casey, Johnson, and Arsenault tossed the wreaths made of red, white, and blue flowers off the bow of the Cassin Young and into the calm waters below, as the USS Constitution fired a salute to honor those who died in that attack.
“We honor you today, and every day, even though 76 years have gone by,” state Veterans’ Services Secretary Francisco Ureña told the survivors. “You have learned to forgive, but you have not learned to forget. And in that sense of not forgetting, you honor your fellow sailors and soldiers and airmen and Marines who perished that day, and who continue to carry . . . our greatest generation into World War II.”Ben Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Globe_Thompson