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Attacks evoke memories of Pearl Harbor

Bruce Atwater was getting ready to go to a prayer breakfast on Sept. 11, 2001, when terror struck. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

Bruce Atwater of Bemidji was sweeping out a recreation hall at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the third day after his ship landed.

"I was contemplating cleaning the spittoons, but I never got to that," he said.

When he heard planes overhead, he ran to the rec hall entryway and looked up.

"There was a plane going by, and it had a rising sun on both wings," Atwater recalled. "I ran out of the front, and there was a whole panorama before me. I was about half a mile from battleship row."

Immediately, public address systems barked, "This is not a drill."

Atwater said the same sense of bewilderment - was the first plane that slammed into the World Trade Center an accident? - shock and horror came over him on Sept. 11, 2001, the second invasion of the United States he had experienced.

"When the second one hit, then all hell was breaking loose," he said. "I was helpless - it was like the last time. I saw the first tower burning. You watch history happening, and you're just a spectator."

"Think of the people being immolated in the planes. They died instantly. Then there were the people in the towers who had half an hour (of terror)."

As the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing dragged on, Atwater said he worked in the sick bay from 9 a.m. until afternoon before he could return to his unit.

"I don't remember much of it," he said. "Your mind blocks it out."

He does remember speculation and talk about war with Japan all the way across the Pacific on his outbound journey to Hawaii in 1941 His ship had a destroyer escort.

"And that was in peacetime," he said.

On July 1, 1941, the Navy took over the Coast Guard, which Atwater thought he had joined.

"And that only happens in time of war," he said.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he and his wife, Ellen, heard the news the attack as they were eating breakfast and getting ready to go to their prayer group at Bethel Lutheran Church.

"It was a sad situation," Atwater said. "We went to the prayer group, and that (attack) was our main concern."

He said his reaction to the invasion was the same as 60 years ago.

"Helpless, frustrated and agonizing," he said. "That's what happened to me at Pearl Harbor. I couldn't do anything."