Witness: Pearl Harbor attack "changed our lives forever"

It's been 77 years, but for 100-year-old Mel Smith, it's a day that is engrained in his memory.

"It seemed like it happened last week," said Smith. "You never forget that."

Smith was stationed at Pearl Harbor as a welder, building tanks for the military. On December 7, 1941, as he finished up his shift, Smith witnessed the unthinkable take place.

"Here come the Japanese planes flying over the mountains to us, just about eye-level with us. We all hit the ground, but he didn't fire on us, fortunately," Smith recalled.

The Japanese pilots were flying so low, Smith said he can still remember seeing the whites of their eyes as they flew into Pearl Harbor, setting it ablaze.

"We stood there watching in disbelief. About 20 minutes later, you could hardly see the harbor from oil burning and ships burning."

Ships were sunk, aircraft were destroyed, and over 2,500 American lives were lost in the two-hour attack. However, Smith said the next day was just as devastating.

"December the eighth, they asked for volunteers to bury the dead, because there was a lot of people killed. A lot of us volunteered and dug graves."

Like so many other American heroes, the events of December 7 inspired a patriotic call to service. Smith went on to serve in the Navy from 1944 to 1946 during World War II.

"It was a big day in our history," said Smith. "It changed our lives forever."

On Friday, Smith, surrounded by other fellow veterans from the VFW Post 4256 in Madeira Beach, took a moment to honor the lives lost on that historic day. Smith stood from his wheelchair and tossed a wreath into the water from the Gulf Boulevard Bridge, saluting it as it fell. 

He said that the thousands of sacrifices that happened 77 years ago today should never be forgotten.  

"I just take my hat off. I salute those men that lost their lives. A tribute should be given to them."