Fewer. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/says-279039-harbor-bender.html more photos.. And fewer. A painting captures the moments when a Japanese bomb exploded aboard the battleship USS Nevada injuring Retired Navy Capt. Robert "Bob" Thomas, 91, of Orange who was manning a gun during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Thomas said as he looked up and watched the bombs falling from the Japanese plane, "I felt I was going to die. This is how it is. I had a feeling of acceptance. I'm 22 and it's over. Mother I'm sorry, I knew she'd be hurt." , who saw the unthinkable on a Sunday morning 69 years ago Tuesday. Men who witnessed the attack that killed or wounded some 4,000 Americans, and decimated 21 U.S. warships and 300 planes. At Pearl Harbor. "The sound of dive bombers screaming in, the sound a bomb makes – it's like a whistle. Then the torpedoes from the torpedo planes coming in; hitting ships and exploding. It's hard to explain," says Bender, 88, of Mission Viejo. "You have to live it." Some 60,000 servicemen and women survived the initial attack at Pearl Harbor. But old age has accomplished what the Japanese could not, reducing their ranks to less than 3,000. "My buddies," Bender says, "they're all gone." Only about 200 attack survivors from around the country were healthy enough to fly to Oahu for the Dec. 7, 2010 dedication of a new $56 million visitor's center and museum at the USS Arizona Memorial. Art Gregory, 95, of Huntington Beach, wanted to be one of them, but his doctor said no. "I'll sit around by myself. It's usually kind of, down-in-the-mouth, like you don't feel like doing anything," Gregory says of the anniversary. "When you were in the spot I was in; when you see guys get knocked down, one after the other..." His voice trails off. Soon these voices will be gone. But for now, they have a story to tell. It begins at 7:55 a.m., on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. A loud noise awakens Yeoman 3rd Class Howard Bender in the gunnery office of the USS Maryland. From the porthole he sees explosions. Smoke. TO WAR The smoke rises from 340 American planes on six U.S. airfields, targeted to prevent a counterattack. Now the sound draws near as Japan's first wave – 183 planes roaring in from the northwest – arrives overhead. The Maryland surges beneath Bender's feet. "It feels like a huge earthquake," he says. "Two near misses on our starboard side. Rivets popping out like shrapnel." As Bender runs to his battle station, he sees the nearby USS Oklahoma roll over from torpedo strikes. "All these guys are in the water," he says, "And flames and smoke are going up in the air." Now it's the Maryland's turn. First one, then another 1,000-pound bomb finds the ship's bow. "We're on fire," he says. "Taking in water. We start to sink into the harbor." Madness reigns. By the end of Japan's first wave of attack, the nearby USS Arizona has exploded, killing more than 1,000 men. Battleship Row lies in ruins. The oil-slicked harbor is aflame and choked with smoke. It is not yet 9 a.m. "We went down to the side of vessel and pulled guys out," says Bender. "One was covered in oil and burning. I tried to help but his hand came off in my hands. He was just totally burned. I'll never forget it." It is about this time, that the USS Nevada tries to make a run for the open sea. "I remember turning to my gunner's mate and saying, 'My God, we're the only ones left,' " says Robert Thomas, 91, of Orange, who was an ensign aboard the Nevada. Within minutes, Japan's second wave arrives – 170 planes. And someone yells: "Dive bomber!" BLOOD BROTHERS It isn't the first dive bomber that gets the Nevada. Nor the second. It is the third. Thomas watches it release a 250-kilogram bomb from between the landing-gear wheels. No drift. Dead steady. Dead ahead. "I know it's going to be a direct hit," he says. "I know I'm going to be killed." What happens next is a miracle in his eyes. The bomb strikes – 12 feet away. Smashes through the deck. But does not detonate until the deck below. What Thomas remembers most isn't his injuries: a broken leg and golf-ball-sized rivet through his wrist. Or the five other bombs that breach the Nevada in shallow waters off Hospital Point. It's what happens next, while awaiting medical attention ashore. There, beside him on the ground, lies a man with no right shoulder. No right arm. Dying. "I recognize him," says Thomas. "He carried shells from the elevator to the guns. I have never gotten over the fact that he died, his body touching mine." The bomb that spared Thomas's life had taken his friend. "I've always considered him a blood buddy," says Thomas. "And a hero." Japan's sneak attack killed more than 2,300 men. That's what survivors want the world to remember – even when they're gone. "When I talk about it, it gets me shook up," says Gregory, who saw his share of death that day. "Course, I'm 95 now. That has something to do with it." NEXT GENERATION Gregory awoke in the harbor after the USS Arizona exploded. He'd just boarded to visit a friend. The explosion blew him off the ship, over a smaller vessel and into the harbor. Gregory swam to the motorboat he used to ferry officers from ship to shore. He collected others in the water, more than 40 men clinging to its side, and taxied them to safety – he thought. "I dropped them off and here come more planes," he says. "One after the other; machine-gunning guys as they were running to safety. Still wet. Some were already injured." The last 3,000 or so Pearl Harbor survivors – almost all in their 90s – can accept their own passing. But not the passing of their story. "Our sons and daughters have picked up the torch," says Bender, a member of the Orange County Chapter 14 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. "They've taken up our jobs at the chapters." Those chapters, however, like the men themselves, are in jeopardy of dying. More than 50 chapters nationwide closed last year. That's why retired Marine Dwight Hanson, 41, of Irvine, brings his three children, ages 13, 11 and 7, to the monthly meetings. "I want them to remember," he says. And to meet men like Robert Thomas, who received the Navy Cross for his action on Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the USS Nevada. "I consider they gave it to me because of my men," he says, remembering one in particular who died beside him. "I wear that for the 100 or so men that were in my battery." source: Orange County Register.