SAN DIEGO — Pearl Harbor wasn’t a defeat, Stuart Hedley insists. It was an eye-opener.

Hedley, the president of a Pearl Harbor survivors group in San Diego, turned 95 in October, which means he was 20 when the West Virginia, the battleship on which he was stationed, was hit by a torpedo and badly damaged. He still remembers a lot of the details and shares them regularly in talks at schools and in front of civic groups.

“Let me tell you,” he said. “The majority of people today don’t even have the slightest idea what happened there.”

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese aerial attack that pushed the United States into World War II. Except for Hawaii, where the surprise attack happened — and where more than a week of anniversary events are planned this year — few communities have cared as much as San Diego about keeping the memory of that horrific day vibrant and relevant.

San Diego is a place — maybe the only place — that still has an active local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. San Diego is where the USS Midway Museum holds an annual Pearl Harbor Day ceremony.

And it’s where the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor — the first Navy vessel to be named after the attack — is based. San Diegans helped persuade military brass to swallow their pride and use the moniker. The Navy doesn’t like naming ships after lost battles. But Pearl Harbor over the years has come to represent something more than loss.

A small boat rescues seamen from the USS West Virginia in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. About 2,400 U.S. service members and civilians were killed in the attack.

A small boat rescues seamen from the USS West Virginia in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. About 2,400 U.S. service members and civilians were killed in the attack. (U.S. Navy via AP)

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the first wave of a strike force of 350 fighters, torpedo planes and bombers launched from six aircraft carriers that had traveled 12 days across the Pacific Ocean, undetected, to get within striking distance.

They zeroed in on Battleship Row, destroying or damaging 19 U.S. battleships, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary ships, including the Arizona, which blew up when a bomb crashed through the deck and detonated in a powder magazine. Hedley, who was on the West Virginia docked nearby, remembers seeing dozens of bodies fly through the air.

Fifteen other ships were damaged or destroyed, and the water surrounding them was soon covered in burning oil. Hedley said he dove under the building-high flames toward shore. “I knew how to swim, but not underwater,” Hedley said. “I swam underwater that day.”

Roused on a sleepy Sunday morning, their ammunition locked away in storage sheds, U.S. service members fought back as best they could.

Gordon Jones was at Kaneohe Bay that day. Now 94 and living in Chula Vista, the former aircraft instrument technician recalled how angry everybody was in the aftermath. “We hadn’t heard anything about any war starting,” he said.

The attack lasted about 75 minutes. It killed 2,400 Americans. A day later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt got Congress’ approval to declare war, famously calling what happened in Hawaii “a date which will live in infamy.”

In his new book, “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness,” New York writer Craig Nelson argues that the nation we live in today was born not on the Fourth of July but at Pearl Harbor.

“The attack on American soil galvanized and united a United States torn apart by partisan squabbling and helped Americans to start thinking of themselves as citizens of the country and of the world,” Nelson wrote. “Being forced to wage war on two oceans and three continents meant an end to America’s Great Depression — 1933’s unemployment rate of 24.9 percent became 1942’s rate of 1.2 percent — as well as a transformation of the country from a timid and withholding isolationist into a global superpower.”

One of the things Nelson and his research team examined was archives of oral histories. “There’s almost nothing with any specific detail when the veterans are interviewed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,” Nelson said. “They didn’t talk about it. They were traumatized, but (post-traumatic stress disorder) was something you just got over. You got on with your life.”

That changed after the Pearl Harbor survivors started getting together for reunions and then formed local associations. They came to know one another not just by name, but by where they were that morning. It wasn’t Joe Smith; it was Joe Smith from the Oklahoma. In this way, they positioned themselves over and over on the stage of a drama that defined their lives.

When they were together, they could talk about how the Japanese bullets clanged off metal and sizzled through water. What the mixture of burning oil and flesh smelled like. How shocking it was, in the days after, to walk by boxes marked “Body Parts.” And how lucky they felt to have survived.

They became recognizable by their uniforms: Hawaiian shirts and white slacks. And they started going out into the community, to schools and libraries and civic meetings, to share their stories.

Pearl Harbor survivor Stuart Hedley, 95, says he dove from the battleship USS West Virginia 75 years ago and swam to shore underwater to avoid building-high flames.

Pearl Harbor survivor Stuart Hedley, 95, says he dove from the battleship USS West Virginia 75 years ago and swam to shore underwater to avoid building-high flames. (Misael Virgen/San Diego Union-Tribune via TNS)

On a recent Monday evening, Hedley drove from his home in San Diego’s Clairemont area to the Admiral Baker Golf Course west of Allied Gardens. In the clubhouse, he gave a talk to a group of about a dozen active and retired social studies teachers. He talked about seeing the Arizona explode, about finding one of his friends cut in half by a sheet of flying glass, about how he’s come to believe that if the leaders of countries want to wage war, they should all get in a ring and fight it out themselves and “not send millions of young men to their deaths.”

When the Pearl Harbor was put into service on May 30, 1998, about 5,000 people attended the ceremony at North Island Naval Air Station. Among them was Jones, the retired Kaneohe Bay aircraft instrument technician.

He and other local Pearl Harbor survivors had spent 15 years trying to persuade the Navy to name a ship after the attack. Jones wrote more than 60 letters. The reply was always the same: “We have more names than we do ships, but we will consider you in the future.”

Between the lines, what the survivors read is that the Navy wasn’t interested in naming anything after the military disaster. To the survivors, though, remembering it was the whole point. How else could the nation avoid a bloody repeat? “Remember Pearl Harbor” was only half of the association’s motto. The other half: “Keep America Alert.”

After the survivors won the argument and the 610-foot-long dock landing ship was stationed in San Diego, Jones often showed up pier-side to wave goodbye when it left on deployments, and to wave hello when it returned. “Hey, Jonesy!” crew members shouted at him. He waved back. He once went as a guest on the ship when it sailed back from Hawaii.

Ask Jones about all that now, and his brow furrows. “I did that?” Like many of the survivors, his memory isn’t what it used to be.

But the connection between the ship and the men, between the ship and what happened 75 years ago, remains strong. There’s a silver service on board from the Raleigh, a cruiser that was hit with a Japanese torpedo and a bomb during the attack but suffered no loss of life. The ship’s anti-aircraft batteries were credited with shooting down five Japanese planes.

That’s just one of several Pearl Harbor artifacts on board the ship, Cmdr. Ted Essenfeld said. He acknowledged the awkwardness of having a ship named after a lost battle, but the crew has embraced the larger message. On baseball hats for the Pearl Harbor is an image of a phoenix rising.

At least six San Diego Pearl Harbor survivors are planning to go to Hawaii for the commemoration ceremonies, which started Thursday. A couple of dozen sons and daughters and other relatives of survivors from San Diego are going too, along with civilian survivors.

The emotional high point of the trip figures to be Wednesday morning at Kilo Pier for a Remembrance Day event that begins at 7:45 a.m., around the time Japanese planes began strafing and bombing the island. There will be speeches and music. The survivors, many of them in wheelchairs, will be front and center.

This may be the last major gathering for many of them, but people have been saying that for at least 25 years, and the former servicemen always seem to rally themselves, just as they did on that Sunday morning so many years ago.

“It means a lot to me to be there because I was part of the men who were lost,” said Ray Chavez, who lives in Poway and, at age 104, is believed to be the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor. He was on board the Condor as a quartermaster in charge of navigation during the attack.

“The only difference is I lived and they died,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m seeing old friends. It’s an honor.”

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