Pearl Harbor Witness Calls Abe Visit ‘Culmination of the Healing’ between US, Japan

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(CNN) — Twenty-year-old Robert Lee woke with a start on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

After returning home late from a date the night before, he had planned to sleep all day. Instead he was awakened by what he thought was someone banging on the front door.

Lee, who lived with his family near Pearl Harbor, looked out of his bedroom window to see Japanese bombers flying low, so low he could see the pilots’ faces. They were headed straight for the ships anchored along battleship row.

“It’s very vivid in my memory, very much so,” Lee, now 95 years old, told CNN in a recent interview. “The banging that I heard was the beginning of firing back from the ships: bang, bang, bang.”

Lee ran out onto his lawn just as the battleship Oklahoma began to capsize. More than 400 sailors and Marines would lose their lives on that ship alone. Meanwhile, the USS Arizona had been hit and began to glow a brilliant red-orange color.

“It was a so-called delayed reaction,” Lee said. The ship glowed brightly for about three seconds before exploding, the fire rising hundreds of feet above the ship. “We felt the blast a few seconds later.”

Lee reflected on that day 75 years ago, when more than 2,400 people lost their lives, as Hawaii prepared for a historic visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who on Tuesday becomes the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit the USS Arizona Memorial to pay his respects along with President Barack Obama to the thousands who lost their lives in the surprise attack that drew America into World War II.

Lee welcomes Abe’s visit.

“I think it’s the greatest thing in the world,” he said.

He remembers how he did whatever he could to fight back that day, including grabbing his 22-caliber target rifle and firing 16 shots at the planes, not because he thought he could hit them, but because he wanted to be one of the ones who shot back.

He and his family spent hours that day helping wash the oil off men who had jumped into the waters of Pearl Harbor, their ships under attack and spilling fuel.

“As soon as they got washed off, they jumped on their boats to go back to their ships to do what they could” to fight back, Lee said.

Later, he went over to Hickham Air Force Base, which had also come under fire, to help transport the wounded to treatment facilities. That evening, he was part of a convoy that evacuated dependents living on the base to a school in the hills just outside Honolulu, driving in total darkness when a blackout was ordered to thwart a possible second attack. By midnight he had signed up for was then known as the Hawaiian Territorial Guard. Hawaii was not yet a state. He later joined the Navy and served domestically throughout the war.

Lee said he felt “enormous anger” after the 1941 attack, but let go of that anger long ago.

“I know enough, in my 95 years, that hate is the greatest destroyer of anyone,” said Lee, who grew up with playmates of Japanese ancestry in a state long known as a multicultural melting pot. “You must not hold hate, I mean it’s a sort of Christian thing, if you will, but the idea that you can harbor hate, will destroy you.”

In the decades since Pearl Harbor, the US and Japan have gone from enemies to allies — a friendship Abe has called an “alliance of hope” and that the White House has called a symbol of reconciliation.

Abe’s visit is an important next step in that relationship, coming seven months after Obama made history as the first sitting US president to travel to Hiroshima to pay his respects to the tens of thousands who lost their lives when the US dropped the atomic bomb there in 1945.

“We’ve already gone through quite a bit of healing,” Lee said. “I think it’s the culmination of the healing.”