World War II pilot Henry Heim, now 92, says he can still hear the sounds of the attack on Pearl Harbor vividly.
Looking back on the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, when Japanese bombers pounded the U.S. Pacific fleet, Americans like Heim are marking the anniversary on Saturday with solemn public ceremonies and private moments of reflection.
The surprise Japanese air and naval assault on the Hawaiian island of Oahu claimed 2,390 American lives and drew the United States into World War II.
The 90-minute raid left 1,178 people wounded, sank or heavily damaged a dozen U.S. warships and destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.
Heim, then 22, was writing a letter to his brother from his barracks at Pearl Harbor when the attack began.
"As I was writing 'Dear Bob,' I heard lots of airplanes," he said. Another soldier near him awoke, complaining about U.S. Navy pilots flying maneuvers so early in the morning.
His complaint was cut short by a tremendous explosion, Heim recalled from his home in Pennsylvania earlier this week.
"I saw another airplane coming down, and something dropped down from underneath it. Then there was another explosion," he said, adding, "I saw a big red ball."
Heim tried three times to run to his duty post but each time was strafed by enemy machine gunfire and forced to turn back.
When he finally reached his post in one of the base hangars, a bomb blew through the ceiling and slammed him against a wall.
"When I come to, I was on all fours, crawling along the wall," he said. "Blood was coming out of somewhere. It scared me to death. I thought I was dying."
Heim managed to grab a machine gun and ran outside, where he began shooting at Japanese aircraft overhead.
"I could feel the bullets hitting the plane and smelled smoke," he said.
He recalls the ordeal lasting more than an hour, a time that is etched in his memory.
"The attack, to me, is like yesterday," Heim said.
Heim went on to train as a pilot and flew 78 combat missions during the war, some of them over the Balkans, France and Germany. He piloted missions in Korea and later flew for the Strategic Air Command.
When he left the military, the Lykens, Pennsylvania native returned home and found a job as a lineman for Bell Telephone. He retired in 1983.
He and his wife, Kay, who have a son and daughter, have been married for 70 years.
The Associated Press reports that about 3,000 people are expected to gather at Pearl Harbor on Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the 1941 Japanese attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.
About 70 World War II veterans and survivors of the Dec. 7 bombing plan to attend the morning ceremony on the shore overlooking a memorial to the USS Arizona battleship that sank during the attack.
The event will begin with a traditional Hawaiian blessing. There will be a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the bombing began 72 years ago. A guided missile destroyer will pass by and render honors to the USS Arizona and its crew.
The Navy and National Park Service are co-hosting the ceremony, which is open to the public. Their theme for the event, "Sound the Alarm," will explore how Americans answered a call to duty in the wake of the attack.
Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia is scheduled to deliver the keynote address.
The Vietnam War veteran is now secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is responsible for managing overseas cemeteries for fallen American troops.
The current U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr. will also speak.
Later in the day, Pearl Harbor survivors will join military and government officials in a parade through Waikiki.
(Reuters Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Steve Orlofsky)