After the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a 15-year-old kid in Springfield Gardens, Queens named Fred Leibold reacted with horror.
“I was as shocked as anybody,” Leibold said, 82 years later.
“These were terrible people,” he recalled thinking at the time, though that opinion has changed. Now 97 and living in Bethpage, Leibold enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and was soon posted at Pearl Harbor. He is one of roughly 960 surviving World War II-era veterans on Long Island, according to Census estimates.
Seventeen of the vets, Leibold included, are scheduled to attend the annual “Dropping of the Roses” Pearl Harbor memorial ceremony Thursday at the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale.
The Pearl Harbor attack began at 7:55 a.m. when elements of a Japanese force of 353 aircraft started their first runs, using bombs, torpedoes and strafing runs to devastate the American vessels and aircraft based there.
Newsday devoted its entire Dec. 8, 1941, front page to the attacks, with one headline proclaiming, “U.S. Warships Sunk; Sea Fight On”.
Many Long Islanders got details of the destruction in Hawaii through wire service bulletins the newspaper published that day. One of those stories, citing the White House, put the American dead at 1,500 with “one old battleship” and a destroyer lost.
In fact, the losses were more grievous: 2,403 dead and 19 vessels destroyed or damaged including the USS Arizona, which sank in the harbor with her crew aboard. That vessel lay on the seafloor during Leibold’s deployment and remains there more than eight decades later.
Damaging as the attack was, the Japanese did not land a lethal blow. Three massive aircraft carriers were unscathed because they were at sea on maneuvers at the time, and the U.S. was able to rebuild its Pacific Fleet. Only six months later at the Battle of Midway, the U.S. carrier fleet sank four Japanese carriers and began a bloody but successful island-hopping campaign against the Japanese Empire’s forces, defeating it in August 1945.
In an interview Wednesday, Leibold spoke little about his time at the base, where he drove a truck, served as a pharmacist’s mate and lived in a cottage with other enlisted men. Visible wreckage from the attack was long gone when he arrived, he said.
Leibold grew most voluble talking not about the war in which he’d fought but about the futility of war itself: “Nobody wins, in a situation like that. There’s a town we take over — we bomb the hell out of it, then build it up.”
Watching news of yet another war, this one in Gaza, is frustrating, he said. “I hate to see it.”
Col. (Ret.) Bill Stratemeier of Quogue, treasurer of the Long Island Air Force Association, a nonprofit devoted to Air Force heritage which organized Thursday’s ceremony, said he expected about 200 attendees. As in past years, musicians will play "Taps" and the "Eternal Father" hymn. "God Bless America" will be sung. Eighty-two American Beauty roses — one for each year passed since the attack — will be blessed and taken aboard a World War II-era plane, then dropped above the Statue of Liberty at 12:55 p.m., timed to the minute the first explosive was dropped in Hawaii time.
The youngest World War II veteran scheduled to attend is 95 and the oldest is 102, Stratemeier said. “Pearl Harbor and World War II are receding further and further into the recesses of the brain,” he said. “We need to keep their memories alive.”