JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- Only 92 of the original 189 Army Air Forces Airmen killed at Hickam Field during the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on military installations of Oahu remain on the island where war found them when they weren't looking for it.
A group of 10 Hickam Airmen, teenagers, spouses and a Sailor volunteered to make sure those who remain were personally honored in the only way they knew how and mark the 71st year since their day of infamy by placing an American flag, a handmade lei and render a salute to each gravesite at the National Cemetery of the Pacific as a gesture of remembrance and honor Dec. 2, 2012.
"To be amongst heroes is a great honor," said Jessie Higa, a volunteer Hickam historian and president of Hickam History Club. "This is something that we did to let them know we haven't forgotten. Though 189 died, where only 92 gravesites remain here, might seem insignificant compared to the Navy numbers, these men still gave their lives. It's beautiful as you gaze across these pathways of grave markers and see those American flags and blue leis littering the field. Airmen to Airmen, honoring each other."
This project started last year when Higa and a group of teenagers from the base got together and came up with a plan to start a community service project. Higa taught them how to make the leis, gathered all the flags and set the day to mark the 70th anniversary. For the second year in a row, flags are now marking the gravesite of those fallen Airmen.
"When your heart is in the right place, you'll always be able find people to partner with you to make it more impactful," Higa said. "I never do it alone. It contagious. People want to be a part of something that's bigger then themselves."
This experience for the teenagers, continuing what they started last year, has opened their eyes to the sacrifices of the men serving in Hawaii during WWII.
"This is an extra step of recognition for these men," said Chris Friedrichs, son of Col. Paul Friedrichs, Pacific Air Forces command surgeon. "Everyone knows what happened at Pearl Harbor, especially on the Arizona and the big ships. Nobody really realizes that it's so much more than just Pearl Harbor."
According to historical accounts, the Japanese attacking forces ascended on the Hawaiian island in two separate waves. At 7:55 a.m., the first wave began their bombardment on Hickam Field. In route to Hickam, they hit other installations around the island including Wheeler Field, Dillingham Field and Bellows Field in an attempt to eliminate any aircraft, clearing the way for the heavy bombers to attack Battleship Row unimpeded.
"These men weren't trying to be heroes," said Emma McLeod, daughter of Brig. Gen. Mark McLeod, U.S. Pacific Command Headquarters.
Bombs fell on the flightline, barracks and hangars with a purpose that Sunday morning. Firearms and ammunition were locked away during the first wave. Planes were lined up on the runway and most were still sleeping in the barracks or in their homes. Thirty minutes later, the second wave descended on the remainder of the airfields and concentrated on the ships moored in harbor.
"When these young men enlisted, most in their early to mid twenties, they may not have known what they were signing up for, but on that morning, they gave it everything they could to do what they knew was right for their country and fellow men," Friedrichs said.
The first shots reportedly fired were from a .45 caliber pistol as an Airman ran out of an aircraft hangar firing into the air at the attacking planes.
"Isn't that so American? Don't you just swell up with American pride when you (hear about) a guy who run out in his boxer shorts shooting in the air with a 45," U.S. Navy Lt. Zach Simms, Pacific Fleet. "That's what these guys did. They're laying here now because that is what they had. They picked up whatever they got and did the best they could and paid the price."
So it was side-by-side, they way these men fought, the volunteers searched among the 34,000 headstones, littering the pristine grassy fields of the cemetery with red, white and blue. For the heroism of the fallen, the Sailor, and his wife, U.S. Air Force Maj. Jasmine Simms, Pacific Air Forces, stood at attention and saluted each of the markers they placed.
"It is just a small gesture that we as Americans can do to take time for our fallen," said Master Sgt. Kevin Taggerty, 735th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "This was their 9/11 and I am sure they would be proud to know that our Americans and our military still honor them 71 years later. Especially having out youth out there leading the charge."
"Officer or enlisted, at the end of the day, these were regular guys like you and me, minding their own business," the Navy lieutenant said. "War came to them, they weren't looking for it at the time."