RICHMOND, Va. -- Roughly 20,000 military personnel survived the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, but as the number of survivors begins to dwindle, a local survivor is sharing his memories of the day that changed his life and launched America into World War II.
Len Gardner, 95, was a signalman stationed aboard the USS Reid the day of the Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet. Gardner said he emerged from the hatch of the ship around 8 a.m.
He was on his way to brush his teeth, when a Japanese bomber flew overhead towards Ford Island.
"[The plane] dropped a bomb, the thing went off, and of course that was the beginning of World War II as far as I was concerned," Garnder, who added the suddenness of the attack took everyone off guard, said. "It was a nice peaceful morning just like this."
No one had time to "dwell" on the magnitude of what was happening, Gardner said.
He remembered rumors of an invasion swirled over the Honolulu radio waves while Japanese attack planes and submarines launched their assault. The USS Reid, which was damaged, but not as extensively as other vessels, was the first naval ship to escape the harbor, and no one on board truly knew what to expect once they hit open water, according to Gardner.
Gardner, who lives in Fluvanna County, joined a crowd of nearly 100 veterans, civilians, and service men and women at the Virginia War Memorial Wednesday to honor the 41 Virginians who lost their lives that day.
During the ceremony, Garnder laid a wreath at the feet of the "Memory" statute as a sign of reverence to the Virginia sailors and servicemen who never returned home.
Gardner served five more years, many of them spent in the Pacific theater during World War II, before returning to Virginia. He lost friends and fellow sailors along the way. Still, he credits the lessons he learned during that time for the man he is today.
"I think the shocking part is the sudden change in your life when this happens," Gardner said when asked how Pearl Harbor changed his life. "It's the most important stage of my life."
As for what lessons younger Americans should take away from a time they never experienced, Gardner advised always "being prepared" and to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.