OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - For more than 60 years, the haunting memories of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor have been seared into the mind of Walter Becker.
Now 86, Becker was one of about 600 sailors who escaped with their lives on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese torpedoes sunk the USS Oklahoma.
Today, the 66th anniversary of the surprise attack, the 429 sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma who died will be honored with a memorial at the Hawaiian naval base.
“It's about 60 years too late,” Becker said from his home in Casper, Wyo. “We're losing a lot of (survivors). They all have to be 80 years old or better by now, so there's only a few of us lucky enough to live that long.”
About 18 of the estimated 90 living survivors who were aboard the USS Oklahoma are expected to join Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and other dignitaries for Friday's dedication of the $1.2 million memorial.
The monument includes 429 white marble standards, each with the name of a fallen sailor or Marine, surrounded by black granite panels etched with a silhouette of the battleship and notable quotes from World War II-era figures.
that were selected by some of the survivors, said retired Navy Rear Adm. Greg Slavonic, co-chair of the USS Oklahoma Memorial Committee.
The layout of the white marble standards, each about 7 feet tall, signifies sailors “manning the rail” in their white uniforms when a ship pulls into port, Slavonic said.
“It's a very quiet, simple memorial, and when you think about sailors manning the rail, it's a very fitting memorial,” Slavonic said. “It represents well what this committee was trying to do for these sailors, both past and present, to symbolize their service to our country.”
The black granite, purchased in Italy, and the white marble from Vermont were shipped to Oklahoma, where it was engraved and prepared for the memorial. The pieces were driven by truck to Long Beach, Calif., and taken by ship to Hawaii.
Becker, whose wife has been ill in recent months, said he won't be able to attend the dedication, but still remembers vividly the day the USS Oklahoma was attacked.
Just 20 years old, Becker was catching up on some laundry in one of the ship's engine rooms when the first torpedo hit. Even when word came to abandon ship, Becker hesitated to leave.
“I had just a couple of days before read an article in “Our Navy” magazine by an admiral who said it was impossible for an aircraft to sink one of our battleship,” Becker recalled. “I was just a kid, and if an admiral said something like that, it's as if the Lord said it.
“Boy, he sure got proved wrong.”
By the time the ship started listing at about a 40-degree angle, Becker decided it was time to get out.
“I came up through a ventilator, through the machine shop, and just as I got to the surface, the shipped turned on over,” he said.
Becker found himself underwater, struggling to find the surface, and eventually lost consciousness. When he came to, he found himself in a life raft.
“I think there was probably an explosion nearby that helped blow me out of the water.”
After finally reaching land, Becker said he learned that many of his shipmates were still trapped inside the ship. He said he spent the next two days working to try and free the trapped men.
“I don't remember how many (survivors) we got out of there, but it seems like it was about 21 or so that we got out,” he said. “I left after two days, because there was no more rapping on the hull.”
Retired Navy Cmdr. Tucker McHugh, who co-chaired the USS Oklahoma Memorial Committee with Slavonic, said he thinks the memorial will bring some sense of closure to those that survived and even to those who perished.
“I think there's been a void in the minds and hearts of these shipmates that their shipmates were never honored with a lasting memorial,” McHugh said. “Total closure might come when the last survivor passes away and they're all reunited together.
“Even though 429 soldiers and Marines died, I believe they're still with us. I think they're looking down and saying, ‘Thank you.”'
Besides survivors and Oklahoma dignitaries, others expected to speak at Friday's dedication include Adm. Timothy Keating, U.S. Pacific Command; U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; and Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle.