PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — As the U.S. Navy's curator of history, Samuel Cox, knows the importance of marking this week's 75th anniversary of the Attack of Pearl Harbor.

As members of what is known as the Greatest Generation grow older, Cox, a retired Rear Admiral who serves as the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and is the Curator of the Navy, said the opportunities to honor survivors of the attack become limited.

"This is likely going to be the last chance to say thank you to the veterans who are still alive, after surviving the attack," Cox said. "This may be one of the last celebrations we have personal observations of the people who lived it."

With most of the veterans in their 90s, Cox said future events will need to rely on recorded interviews with survivors.

Impact of the day

Cox hopes the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor serves two purposes.

First, he said, the day helps remind Americans of how the nation was unprepared to go to war - which then led to countless service members paying the ultimate price.

Cox said while U.S. officials expect an attack, they never expected the attack on Pearl Harbor would happen on that day.

He said a variety of reasons, including complacency and a belief that the Japanese could not host such a devastating attack, led to US officials not being mentally prepared to go to war.

"This had devastating consequences, because it cost the lives of American servicemen," Cox said.

He also hopes Americans remember that "freedom isn't free."

Cox said the service men on the Oklahoma and Arizona, many ranging in age from 18 to 20, paid the ultimate price to ensure Americans would enjoy freedom.

Among those who perished on the Oklahoma included at least one set of three brothers.

A final lesson

Cox said while most historical accounts focus on the surprise of the attack, and the tragic elements, there is one other lesson to remember - the valor and bravery of the sailors who rapidly responded to the incident.

"There were 15 Medal of Honors and 51 Navy Crosses [awarded after Pearl Harbor]," Cox said. "It's the most awards for bravery in a single navy action in history."

Cox said most remember the instantaneous act of violence, comparing it to American's reaction to the events of 9/11.

"We have an initial sense of disbelief, as our eyes show us what is rapidly happening," Cox said. "The intensity of the American anti-aircraft response, within five minutes, negated all of the actual surprise [of the attack]."

Cox said because the servicemen responded within the first five to seven minutes of the attack, firing upon the Japanese forces, with intensity, the third wave of the attack was thwarted.

This meant the Japanese could not destroy additional targets, which included the fuel storage area, which later proved critical in their ultimate defeat.