Alvis Taylor, 90, was serving as an Army medic when the attack began. His superiors, who were doctors, rushed to hospitals to care for the wounded and left him in charge. He went to Pearl Harbor, about 18 miles south of his Army post at Schofield Barracks, with dozens of ambulances.
"I remember everything that happened that day," Taylor said grimly.
A crowd of about 2,500 joined the survivors at Pearl Harbor to honor those killed and those who fired back, rescued the burned and went on to serve during the war. Roughly 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed at Pearl Harbor and other military installations on the island of Oahu in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
Taylor, who lives in Davenport, Iowa, decided to return to Pearl Harbor for the first time since the war this week because the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America paid for him and his wife to make the trip.
Of the tens of thousands of servicemen who survived, about 2,000 to 2,500 are still living.
Delton Walling, who was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania at the time of the attack, said they're "in the twilight years."
"I come back to be with my comrades - meet the ones who are still alive, and we're going fast," said Walling, who is 92 and lives near Sacramento, Calif.
The crowd observed a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the bombing began 72 years ago. Attendees sat in a grassy spot overlooking the memorial to the USS Arizona battleship that sank in the attack.
A vintage World War II-era airplane - a 1944 North American SNJ-5B - flew overhead to break the silence. The Hawaii Air National Guard has used its fighter jets and helicopters to perform the flyover for many years, but federal budget cuts prevented it from participating this year.
The Navy and National Park Service co-hosted the ceremony, which was open to the public.
The current U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said the U.S. remembers Pearl Harbor and is vigilant.
"The United States is and will remain a Pacific power. But we also remember the warning from those who survived Pearl Harbor, and we are increasing our vigilance accordingly," Harris said. "Today, we are focused as we listen for the sound of the alarms."
Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, choking back tears at times, spoke of his father who served in the Navy during the war.
"He was my hero," Cleland said in his keynote address.
"For all the Pearl Harbor survivors, thank you for teaching us all how to survive," Cleland said. "How to not just survive but how to strive, to turn things around. And how to ultimately thrive in life."
Cleland, who lost both legs and his right arm fighting in the Vietnam War, is currently secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The commission is responsible for managing overseas cemeteries for fallen American troops.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer were among those attending.
Brewer said it was an honor to be there among the survivors.
"Pearl Harbor was such a horrific tragedy in the U.S., but it makes me proud to know that the men here are the fabric of what America is made of," Brewer said in a statement after the ceremony.