MANATEE — Pearl Harbor survivor Robert O’Neill, 90, always keeps a briefcase handy.
It is filled with visual aids from a time long ago: a battle flag from a U.S. submarine, an autographed flying scarf from an Army aviator he befriended, a captured Japanese prayer flag, and photos taken aboard a cramped submarine.
Most of all, there are photographs showing the carnage at Pearl Harbor after two waves of Japanese planes attacked the American fleet Dec. 7, 1941, killing 2,403 Americans, and wounding 1,178.
“I have a little bit of everything,” said O’Neill, a retired Navy captain with 37 years of service.
His mission these days is to take his briefcase to schools, and talk about Pearl Harbor so that children know the story of a surprise attack that shook the world.
“He is always on the go. He will do four or five things a day,” said O’Neill’s neighbor, Billy Prater.
O’Neill joined the Navy Reserve at 16, and at 16 1/2 was a gunner’s mate on troop transport ship at Pearl Harbor, waiting to sail for Australia to pick up a submarine.
“We were on the way to breakfast when the Japanese attacked. We were across the bay from the Arizona. The first thing I saw was a plane coming over. It was so close you could see the pilot’s face and the red ball on the wing,” O’Neill said.
For the next 30 hours, O’Neill and his shipmates were in row boats, picking up survivors and bodies.
“At 7:30 a.m., I was a 16 1/2 year-old boy. At 8:30 a.m., I was a 16 1/2-year-old man. You grew up fast, believe me,” O’Neill said.
There was a big fuel depot nearby that the Japanese passed up to attack battleships, cruisers and destroyers, he said.
Historians believe that if the Japanese had launched a third wave of planes and hit the fuel depot and other port infrastructure, America’s ability to strike back might have been even more seriously compromised.
“At Pearl Harbor we came close to flying the Japanese flag. But we recuperated and reorganized. There were a bunch of guys there who were gung ho and loved their freedom. They fought for it,” he said.
At war’s end, he was in a submarine in Tokyo Bay after having torpedoed a Japanese tanker earlier in the day.
“We had Japan completely surrounded by submarines, and nothing could get in or get out,” he said.
Until recent years, O’Neill returned to Pearl Harbor annually to pay tribute to those who lost their lives there.
“But I can’t make the trip any more,” said O’Neill, who is often seen these days riding through his neighborhood in a motorized wheelchair, with his little dog Khaki in his lap.
“We used to have Pearl Harbor Survivor chapters, but they have all dissolved,” he said.
With the passing of some many Pearl Harbor survivors, O’Neill worries that the surprise attack will be forgotten.
“I called a school the other day and asked what they were doing on Monday. They said what’s Monday?” O’Neill said of the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
More top of mind for the American public is the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
But even memories of 9/11 are fading.
“It will be like this for 9/11, too. We are not safe from attack. It can happen,” he said.
For this year’s anniversary, O’Neill plans to attend a Pearl Harbor memorial dinner 4-7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7 at The Law Place, 2445 Fruitville Road, Sarasota.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.