Elmer Breeze clearly remembers when the bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor.
He was taking a shower on the battleship WEST VIRGINIA.
"There was a terrific explosion and the whole thing shook," said Breeze, president of the Rio Grande Valley chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
Breeze, 71, said he quickly threw on the closest piece of clothing -- a pair of boxer shorts -- and shot up the ladder.
What he witnessed when he reached the deck on this early Sunday December morning in 1941 was one of the most catastrophic events in U. S. history: The United States had just been thrown into a world war of unprecedented magnitude.
But neither the then 20 year old Breeze, nor the sailors raising Old Glory while Japanese bombers lay waste to the Pacific fleet, could figure out the exact nature of the tumult just at that point.
"They thought there was an explosion under deck," Breeze said of the startled sailors participating in the morning ceremonial raising of the flag. "I figured an ammunition magazine had blown up.
"I looked around and saw nothing but black smoke and explosions," he said.
Moments later reality set in as Breeze and the other 1,200 surviving sailors on the WEST VIRGINIA scurried to their battle stations.
"The Japs are bombing us," blared the ship's loudspeaker.
Nearly 50 years later, Breeze recounts that fateful day in crisp, clear detail as if he were still swimming to the shore of Pearl Harbor trying to escape the peril and destruction around him.
Burn scars on his legs still remind him of his dive into the fiery water after the ARIZONA, docked only 20 feet behind the WEST VIRGINIA, blew "shrapnel, boats and men" in every direction.
"It looked like it just disintegrated," he said.
Vivian Francis Scribner, 80, also served on the WEST VIRGINIA on that unforgettable day in 1941.
But as things sometimes go, he and Breeze never met up until their lives crossed paths in the Valley so many years later.
And like all who survived the fires that swallowed the US Pacific Fleet, Scribner has his own story to tell.
He was shining his boots to go on liberty when the ship's whistles and horns began blasting.
But the incessant practice drills of the past few weeks made him think these warnings were just that --- more practice drills.
Then he craned his neck out the porthole and recognized the flash of a red sun painted on the side of a plane that was dropping the first bomb.
"Everybody thought it was another drill," Scribner said recently, his eyes focusing on a distant point in his memory.
"I had time to stick my head out the 16-inch porthole and see the Japanese coming before another boy pushed me out of the way to look," he said.
When that first torpedo hit the WEST VIRGINIA, the boat rocked and a 10-foot stream of water splashed in through the porthole which had framed Scribner's head only moments earlier.
As Scribner, a radio operator, took up the call to "man their stations," between six and eight torpedoes hit the ship, he said.
"We were sunk, but the only thing that saved us from tipping over was that they counter-flooded it," Scribner said.
Upon entering the transmitter room, Scribner said everyone was disoriented and confused.
"We didn't know what the thunder was going on," he said.
"Everyone was in a state of unbelievable shock."
Yet one thing was for sure, at least in Scribner's mind: "There wasn't anyone who wasn't scared."
The Navy mens' attempts to stay with the ship were cut short when a torpedo hit the engine room, and all power was lost.
Scribner heard the call to abandon ship "by voice." That, he said "was enough for me."
He ran out of the transmitter room just as water began flooding the passageway.
And as Scribner escaped to the disaster outside, he saw that the whole back end of the ship was on fire.
"It was me and the officer of the day, and we walked on the side of the ship almost to the bow. He hauled off and jumped in and all I saw of him was his hat floating on the water," Scribner said.
With torpedoes and bombs raining down around him, Scribner took the time to sit down on the armored ship's side and take off his pants before swimming the 75 yards to Ford Island.
He did not want to be weighted down.
By the time the ARIZONA blew up, Scribner was tucked into a ready-made bomb shelter on the beach -- "a great big rock sitting at a slant --- crawled right in there, " he said.
Both Scribner and Breeze walked away from Pearl Harbor attack with few physical scars.
But the mental and emotional nicks they have carried all these years are just beginning to fade.
On Dec. 8, 1941 Scribner and others began the clean-up -- an act that opened his eyes to the gruesome reality of what he had survived.
"I had no idea they were sinking every battleship we had," he said.
"I was one of the luckiest men. We opened up different doors of those ships and there were guys floating around in there," he said pausing. "They had swelled up like pigs."
Breeze has had his own mental monsters to wrestle.
He said he had difficulty forgiving the Japanese for their sneak attack, a resentment which lingered inside for many years.
But time has softened him. "I have mellowed out over the last 50 years," Breeze said. "It doesn't seem as important as it did years ago. I've talked with them and joked with them. You've got to learn to live and let live."
Like much of the World War II generation that endured the nation's ultimate sacrifice, Breeze doubts that today's young people could have tolerated the pain and suffering of WWII.
"Younger people would have a hard time coping with it," he said.
Yet both veterans were eager to leave when their tours had ended in 1944.
"I'd had enough of the war," Breeze said.
He said the lesson of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th, 1941 was to "be on the alert, and you're always prepared."
But a more valuable lesson that was paid for in blood and tears is few will soon forget.
"Freedom does not come cheap," Breeze said.
As the 50th anniversary of those days events nears, many survivors have returned to visit the underwater graves of their comrades-in-arms in Pearl Harbor.
Within the ARIZONA itself, 1,102 bodies remain entombed forever in her hull.
Meanwhile, other survivors who could not make the trip to Hawaii began celebrating in their own way with small gatherings throughout the Valley.
And though the price was heavy, the results were tremendous.
Samuel E. Morison wrote in his "History of United States Naval Operation in World War II": "Never in modern history was a war begun with so smashing a victory by one side, and never in recorded history did the initial victor pay so dearly for his calculated treachery."
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