Pearl Harbor remembered during wreath-laying ceremony in Charlestown; survivors recall attack

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The 71st anniversary of the surprise Pearl Harbor attack was commemorated today at the Charlestown Navy Yard. (Brian Ballou/Globe Staff)

The warplane swooped in low and as it roared by, Donald Tabbut, an 18-year-old radioman, looked directly overhead and saw the symbol of the rising sun on its underside.

“I can’t tell you what was on my mind … it was fear, strictly fear,” Tabbut said during a Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony this afternoon in the Charlestown Navy Yard.

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“The Japanese were hitting us and we didn’t have anything we could do about it,’’ said Tabbut, 89. “Our ships were destroyed, our planes were destroyed, and everything was against us. As a matter of fact, I spent several days wound up very tight because I thought they would come back and take over.”

Across the country, similar ceremonies marked the 71st anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that left 2,400 dead, 68 of them civilians, and crippled the Pacific fleet. In Charlestown, the event was held in front of the USS Cassin Young, a Fletcher-class destroyer. The ship is named after a captain who received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Joining Tabbut at the ceremony was Francis M. Connolly, 91, a Quincy Navy veteran who was on the deck of the USS St. Louis during the attack and witnessed the explosion aboard the USS Arizona that instantly killed most of its crew.

The survivors helped lay a wreath in front of the destroyer as a crowd of about 100 people looked on.

“It’s impressive after so many years. ... It’s pretty clear why it has its place in history, but it’s great to see that people are still so focused on it. That’s surprising,” said Franklin Van Valkenburgh, 45, a resident of the North End whose great-grandfather, who he is named after, was the last commanding officer of the USS Arizona. Van Valkenburgh was killed during the attack, as were more than 1,170 others aboard. The ship could not be fully salvaged and remains submerged. A memorial was built atop the wreckage.

Matthew Bonner, captain of the USS Constitution, said that while this country’s defense was severely weakened by the Dec. 7, 1941 attack, it could have been worse.

“Seventy-one years ago, on a quiet Sunday morning, America suffered a devastating attack that sunk numerous ships and destroyed countless aircraft and killed over 2,000 people and wounded over a thousand more,” Bonner said.

“Despite those horrific losses it could have been worse. We could have lost our carriers, which later took the fight to our enemy. We could have lost our repair facilities, which helped repair those damaged ships, and we could have lost our fuel storage, which fueled our ships and planes for the battles that lied ahead,” Bonner said.

As the ceremony ended, most onlookers went to the survivors to shake their hands and thank them for their service. The survivors, some of them standing with the aid of a cane, posed for pictures as they were lauded for their service decades ago.

Tabbut shared another story with them.

He said that on the night prior to the attacks, he met up with several fellow servicemembers whom he hadn’t seen since his first weeks in the military, and they caught up on each other’s lives and downed “more than a few beers.” The next morning he woke up with a hangover.

“When the attack happened, my hangover was instantly gone,” he said.

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