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'If I Live Through This...' Oregon Navy Vet's Pearl Harbor Memories Undimmed

A survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor who now lives in Lincoln City, Oregon, has vivid memories of the surprise strike on the Pacific Fleet that pushed the U.S. into World War II. Ed Johann, then a 17-year-old apprentice seaman, was crewing a hospital ship's water taxi when the first fighter bombers came over the horizon.

As museums and historians polish exhibits and remembrance programs for the 75th anniversary on Wednesday, Johann recalled the attack that killed more than 2,300 U.S. servicemen.

"On December 7 (1941), I had been in the Navy about six months. Because it was Sunday, a lot of buddies/guys wanted to go visit other ships with family members or their other buddies. I was down in a 36-foot open motor launch with wooden seats in it. We were waiting there to take these fellas to these places they wanted to go when we looked up in the air and it was full of airplanes."

"I was thinking like a lot of other guys, we thought it was some kind of a drill. Why are they drilling on Sunday? You know, in the peacetime Navy everything was different."

"I noticed the dive bombers were coming out of the sun. You couldn't see them. You could hear 'em. And then you just got a flash of 'em as they fly by and drop (their bombs or torpedoes). And then they would fly up into that black smoke and you didn't see them again."

"Without anyone telling us what to do, the two other fellas and I that are in this launch, we went over to the battleships. They were lowering wounded guys down to us. Later some of the battleships, instead of them lowering down wounded to us, they were jumping off themselves. They were abandoning ship because the ship was sinking.”

“We had a lot of guys in the water. There was a lot of oil on the water. A lot of oil was burning that was on the water. We were pulling the guys into the boat. Some of 'em, it was hard to do because you grab their arm, pull and you just get a handful of skin. Or they'd be coated in oil. It's hard to grasp something, someplace to get a hold of the guy to get him in the boat."

"We just kept on like that. I have no idea how many fellas we saved that day. The other two guys in the boat and I, we never did get hit. I don't know why. They were surely shooting at us because they were shooting at everything in the harbor."

"I thought, if I live through this... Everybody was making promises. I'll never swear again. I'll never drink. You know, I'll never stay up late. I'll be like a monk! Myself, I figured if I live through this I'm going to not dedicate myself, but I'm going to try to do an experience to help other people. So I got on the Portland Fire Department for 28 years saving lives and property. At the same time, I worked as a volunteer on mountain rescue. We'd go up and find people that were lost or sometimes just recover a body.”

Johann received the Navy commendation medal with a "V" for valor for his actions that day. He and eight other Northwest people with notable connections to WWII in the Pacific will speak on a panel Wednesday evening at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. That 75th anniversary remembrance is free and open to the public.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that he would go to Pearl Harbor late this month with President Barack Obama. Abe will become the first Japanese leader to visit the naval base.

Speaking to reporters at the prime minister's office, Abe said his upcoming visit is intended "to console the souls of the victims" of the attack in 1941.

"We must never repeat the horrors of war. Looking to the future, I want to demonstrate that resolve to the world," Abe said according to the Kyodo news service.

Earlier this year, Obama made a historic visit to the Hiroshima, Japan, where he laid a wreath at a monument to those killed when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb.

Separately, Johann and five other WWII combat veterans from the Pacific Northwest journeyed to Japan in summer 2015 on a private reconciliation mission organized by the Obon Society. Johann had never been to Japan before. The group of U.S. veterans and their escorts returned 70 inscribed Japanese flags, which were taken by American GI's off of fallen Japanese soldiers and airmen more than 70 years ago.

"I have no animosity towards any of those people,” Johann told public radio last year. “Their military and our military were just following orders. We had no say-so. Our feelings didn't matter.”

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.