Jack Stahl of Dix Hills could feel the world was on a precipice. Nazi Germany was spreading its might through Europe and the Japanese had launched a surprise military assault on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Emboldened by a sense of patriotism, Stahl joined the Navy when he turned 17 in 1943, serving as an electronic technician's mate on North Atlantic convoys during the war, and doing his part to help change the course of American history.
"I just hope we can continue this democracy that we fought for," Stahl, 96, said Wednesday on the 81st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. "It's the most important thing that we can leave our kids."
Stahl and more than a dozen other World War II veterans commemorated the somber anniversary during a ceremony at the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale.
Poor weather prevented the Skytyper pilots from continuing their tradition of dropping red roses over the waters around the Statue of Liberty — one for each year since Pearl Harbor — along with a single white rose marking the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, the plane ceremony will commence Thursday morning, said Retired Air Force Col. Bill Stratemeier.
Nonetheless, the event, which was attended by more than 200 veterans and their families, was not lacking in military pomp and circumstance. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian McNamara, chaplain of the 106th Rescue Wing, blessed the roses, while a bugler played "Taps" and the World War II veterans received proclamations from elected officials.
"Today is a day about remembrance," said Stratemeier, treasurer of the Long Island chapter of the Air Force Association, which organized the event. "Today is a day to honor our military and our veterans."
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who enlisted in the Army in 1992, drew parallels between the United States' fight for freedom during World War II and the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
"When I look at the Ukrainian people, and I see what they're doing under the most horrific of circumstances, I see people who are like us," Bellone said. "Unwilling to be subjugated by a tyrannical leader. Unwilling to give up their freedom. When I see them, I see us. I see these individuals who fought for that same freedom — the freedom which I enjoy and my kids enjoy. That's what America stands for."
At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, the first Japanese dive-bomber appeared over Pearl Harbor, attacking airfields and docked ships before a second wave about 55 minutes later. More than 2,400 Americans, including at least 12 Long Islanders, were killed, while 1,200 others were injured.
The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed the day of the attack "a date which will live in infamy" and formally entered the United States into World War II.
"Despite these heavy losses, it did not break the American spirit," said Col. Paul Salas, director of logistics for the New York Air National Guard. "In fact, it charged it, preparing us for the long, hard war ahead."
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Leonard Jindra of Floral Park, 101, was working in a jewelry store preparing for Christmas when word came over the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He initially thought it was a joke but became deadly serious when the news became clearer.
"One of the thoughts was that it was everybody's brother," said Jindra, who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day — June 6, 1944. "And that's it. I enlisted."
Retired Army Sgt. Dominick Critelli, also 101 and from Floral Park, said he's seen a major positive change in how the public treats veterans during the past 20 years as the number of Greatest Generation soldiers dwindles with time.
"They realize what the veterans did," said Critelli, who was stationed in Germany, France and the Netherlands during the war. "And every soldier that served this country deserves the best right now."