DEC. 7, 1941, started like an ordinary Sunday aboard the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.
At 7:55 a.m., Russell J. McCurdy, a 24-year-old Marine Corps private assigned to the ship, was getting cleaned up to go ashore. He had tickets to a football game in Honolulu.
Don Stratton, a 19-year-old Navy seaman first class, had just finished breakfast and was putting some oranges into his hat to take to a buddy in sick bay.
Twenty-five minutes later, their ship would be a blazing, broken-backed wreck sinking to the bottom of the harbor, and 1,177 of the 1,375 or so men on board would be dead or dying.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt branded that Sunday as "a date which will live in infamy." It was the day a Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet in less than two hours and catapulted an infuriated United States into World War II.
Some 2,400 military and civilian people were killed, almost half of them aboard the Arizona. The remains of that sunken battleship still lie in the harbor as the tomb of almost 1,000 of the men who went down with her. The Arizona Memorial, built over her hull, is a melancholy symbol of that day in American history.
More than 1.75 million people a year visit the memorial, and all U.S. Navy vessels still render honors as they pass by.
Next December, McCurdy and Stratton and other Arizona veterans will go to Hawaii for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing.
The National Park Service, which operates the USS Arizona Memorial and Visitors Center, and the U.S. Navy are developing a program for Dec. 7, 1991. Other commemorative events will take place in the Honolulu area on that and surrounding days.
Because only 150 people at a time can be accommodated aboard the USS Arizona Memorial and because space at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center is so limited, the Park Service and the Navy are appealing to those who are not survivors or their families to plan a visit sometime other than Dec. 7 and surrounding days.
Russell McCurdy, who's from Huntington, Ind., remembers the attack vividly. He was coming off duty as orderly for the division commander, Rear Adm. Isaac C. Kidd. While getting cleaned up, he felt vibrations from an exploding bomb. Then the general quarters rang, sending him and the other men racing to battle stations.
"My station was on the main mast, 100 feet in the air," McCurdy recalls. "I had to go up a ladder on one of its tripod legs. On the way up, when I had almost reached the searchlight platform, I could see a 500-pound bomb come down. It hit the quarter deck.
"I hid behind the tripod leg -- it's nearly 2 feet thick -- and let the fragments and pieces of the ship whistle on by. My lieutenant was already on the platform, his chest riddled by fragments or machine-gun bullets. He didn't know what hit him. I went on up and into my place."
With eight or so others, McCurdy was assigned to the "director" for the port broadside guns. There they used equipment that targeted enemy planes and relayed directions to the guns down below.
"I had the best view of the harbor you could ask for," McCurdy says. "I could see the torpedo planes come in and the bombers. As they dropped their lethal loads onto the Oklahoma and other ships, they'd labor hard to climb. The pilots slid the glass canopies back. They were 30 or 40 feet away. I could see their faces.
"And I saw the battleship Oklahoma list and roll over. Then the mast hit bottom, and it rolled back, then over again. I could see men walk up the side as it was rolling, trying to get off. That ship rolled like a wounded, harpooned whale."
Don Stratton, from Yuma, Ariz., raced to his battle station at another director on the foremast, about 135 feet forward from the main mast. His station was on the platform just above the ship's bridge.
Within minutes, a 1,200-pound, armor-piercing bomb hit the forward part of the Arizona near a turret. "It went right through the upper deck and into the bow and exploded," Stratton says. "It went right through the sick bay where my friend was."
The bomb exploded the forward ammunition magazines -- the fatal moment captured in a famous photograph.
"There was a ball of fire," says Stratton. "It was just like an inferno. It blew off 120 feet of the bow. The ship was 34,200 tons, but the explosion shook it like a dog shakes a rat."
To McCurdy, back on the main mast, the ship seemed "to rear in the air at first, shaking sideways. Then there were the aftershakes. We felt like dice in a dicebox. Debris and flames flew past. The ship's midsection opened like a blooming flower, burning from within like a white hot furnace." The foremast toppled partway over, toward the raging fire.
On the bridge, Arizona Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh and Adm. Kidd -- who had been helping man a machine gun -- had been blown to bits.
One deck above, Stratton and others at his director were among the few men toward the bow of the ship to survive. They were surrounded by smoke and fire. Stratton was burned over 60 to 70 percent of his body.
Smoke from the Arizona billowed 1,000 feet into the air, joined by smoke from planes, buildings and other battleships and vessels that had been hit. Skies over the harbor blackened.
Men on the Vestal, an old repair ship anchored next to the Arizona, got a line across to the director platform. Stratton and five others went across, hand over hand. "Some others tried to go down on the ladders," Stratton says, "but I doubt if they made it."
"I understood that eventually the line burned," says McCurdy. "I saw guys trying to swing from the yardarm to give them momentum to clear the decks and get into the water, but it seemed like the fire pulled them in. For us, there was no exit but down the ladder." The rungs, wrapped in shellacked rope, were smoldering, and the air was oven-hot.
On the decks below, McCurdy saw charred bodies and sailors still alive whose clothes had been blown or burned off. They were in shock.
"When I saw guys from the explosion dive into the water, it looked like they sizzled," he says. "They were done for. They didn't know what they were doing."
McCurdy's first sergeant was on the quarter deck, burned beyond recognition. "I knew him by his voice," McCurdy says. "He called us Marines champions. 'Swim for it, champions,' he said. He died a few minutes later."
McCurdy and eight or nine others jumped overboard and began paddling the 100 yards to Ford Island, in the center of the harbor, led by Marine Maj. Alan Shapley.
"He was my hero," McCurdy says. "We were like a little group of ducks following the mother duck. There was oil, fire, thick debris, plus you had to be sure your head was above water when a bomb or torpedo hit or it would knock out your hearing. Maj. Shapley urged us on. He saved the life of a corporal who gave out swimming and rode on Shapley's back." Shapley received a Silver Star and later became a three-star general.
McCurdy spent the night at a gun position atop the Ford Island armory. Later, he returned to the United States for officers training and served in the Marines' First Division through the invasion of Okinawa. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965.
Stratton sailed into U.S. waters aboard a hospital ship on Christmas Day.
"Our dinner was only peas and potatoes and gravy. We didn't mind," he says. He got out of the hospital in September 1942, weighing 92 pounds. He received a medical discharge from the Navy, but enlisted again a year later, serving two years aboard a destroyer that was in on invasions from the New Hebrides to Okinawa.
Like McCurdy and Stratton, each survivor has memories that draw many of them back. Some plan to make Pearl Harbor the final resting place for their ashes.