BY THE NUMBERS:
At 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the first of two waves of Japanese planes began dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor. The United States declared war on Japan the next day.
* 21 U.S. ships sunk
* 360 aircraft destroyed or damaged
* 2,403 American servicemembers killed
* 1,178 military personnel and civilians wounded
Source: Department of Defense
IF YOU GO:
* What: Pearl Harbor Day ceremony
* When: 9:30-11:00 a.m.
* Where: VFW Post 2598 on 3370 N. Ocoee St., Cleveland, Tenn.
* Cost: Free
John J. Spittler was with his family in Nebraska when the radio spread news around the globe and Americans learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
"I remember my dad saying, 'I'm not surprised,' and I said, 'I'm not either,' " the now 91-year-old man recalled.
The attack 68 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, drew the United States into World War II, and it also led Mr. Spittler to fight in 16 major battles throughout the Pacific Ocean.
"I was not surprised, but appalled," said Mr. Spittler, who lives at Alexian Village on Signal Mountain.
Across the country today, events will be held to mark the anniversary of the attack. However, veterans such as Mr. Spittler are becoming harder to find. In 2008 the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day.
Their number has dwindled from more than 16 million to 2.5 million.
Membership in the National Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is down to fewer than 4,800, compared to more than 15,000 members 15 years ago, according to a McClatchy News report.
With the loss of a generation that experienced the war firsthand, some worry that those historic events will be forgotten.
"I see Pearl Harbor in some ways fading from memory," said Kurt Piehler, history professor at the University of Tennessee. But he said interest in the European front, including D-Day and the fighting against Nazi Germany, has increased.
What generations after World War II don't realize is many knew war was coming, he said. The surprise was the fact that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the level of destruction that the attack wrought.
Mr. Spittler said Japan had been buying scrap metal from the United States for years before the attack. It was a handy way for farmers to make money when crop fields were dry and the Great Depression lingered, he said.
"Much of that steel came back to us in a different form," Mr. Spittler said.
Mr. Spittler had joined the Army Air Corps, predecessor of the U.S. Air Force, in 1940 and worked in Canada with the Royal Canadian Air Force before returning home when the U.S. draft order spread.
"Anyone who paid any attention to history or read the newspapers could see that the war was coming," Mr. Spittler said.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1941. Because he had problems with his eyesight, he couldn't be a pilot, but he could spot enemy planes and train others to do the same.
Mr. Spittler remembers lines stretching out the recruiting office doors the day after the attacks.
Though some scholars draw parallels between Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Dr. Piehler says there are key differences. The main one is that Pearl Harbor was an attack by a sovereign nation against a military target, he said.
"It's very tough to argue that the World Trade Center was a military target," he said.
What the Pearl Harbor attacks did was unify the country in the war effort, Dr. Piehler said. There was still dissent, but most agreed that it was time to enter the war.
The United States went from a country with an army of a few hundred thousand in 1939 to more than 8 million soldiers by the end of the war, he said.
The buildup and military commitments the United States took on following World War II never receded and set the country on a path to its present position as world leader, Dr. Piehler said.
"It's harder for people to think what it means to them now," he said. "Most Americans see World War II as a turning point in American history. I think Pearl Harbor is one of those moments."