Seventy-seven years ago, Freeman Johnson was a young man serving in the Navy aboard the USS St. Louis when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, and Johnson recalled exactly where he was when the attack began.
“I was in my bunk reading,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday from Centerville. “We had just finished breakfast.”
Johnson remembered the moment that he felt the vibration of the machine gun on the deck above him.
“That was the first sign we knew something was wrong,” he said.
Johnson, 98, is among the dwindling number of World War II veterans who were at Pearl Harbor on the fateful day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would later describe as “a date which will live in infamy.”
In total, 2,341 sailors, soldiers, and Marines died as a result of the attack, as well as 49 civilians.
To mark the anniversary, Johnson planned to attend a special ceremony at Battleship Cove in Fall River on Friday. It’s one of several events across the state to commemorate National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
Another ceremony is scheduled to be held on the USS Cassin Young in the Charlestown Navy Yard, where state Veterans’ Services Secretary Francisco Urena and other officials will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at 12:30 p.m.
Originally from Waltham, Johnson joined the Navy when he was 19. “I was a very small cog in a very big machine,” he said.
Observers aboard the St. Louis had spotted Japanese planes at 7:56 a.m. that day, and within minutes its antiaircraft guns were firing at the attackers, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
Johnson said he went down to the fire room to tend to the ship’s engines as the ship prepared to get underway. “We were too busy to be worried or scared,” he said.
By around 8:20 a.m., one of the ship’s gun crews shot down its first enemy torpedo plane, and at 9:31 a.m., the St. Louis moved away from the pier and began heading toward open sea. As it moved into the channel entrance, a Japanese midget submarine shot a torpedo at the ship but missed, according to the naval history website.
Afterward, the ship became known as the “Lucky Lou,” because “we got out of Pearl Harbor without a scratch,” he said.
George Hursey, 98, of Brockton, also has vivid memories of that day. Hursey was in the Army and stationed at Fort Shafter in Hawaii.
“We were on a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor and you could see everything,” he said. “One of the battleships blew up in our faces.”
As unit prepared to go into battle position, the reality of what was happening sunk in. “All hell was breaking loose,” he said.
Hursey welcomed several special visitors to his home on Wednesday, as local officials stopped by to thank him for his military service. Hursey also watched the funeral of George H.W. Bush on television.
“He was a real American. He chose to fight for his country,” he said. “I wish every damn politician would do that.”
Hursey said he’ll most likely stay home Friday, “saying prayers for the poor guys who didn’t make it,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”