Seven decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the event served as a transformative moment for two Miami-Dade teenagers Friday morning in Hawaii.
The pair, Young Marines Master Sgt. Oscar Piñate, 17, of Miami Springs, and Lance Cpl. Albert Villalobos, 16, of Little Havana, are members of the Pfc. Bruce W. Carter Young Marines, the unit in Doral of the national education and service nonprofit that works with children ages 8 to 18.
On Friday, the high-school students laid a wreath at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in memory of those interred there. More than 13,000 soldiers and sailors who died during World War II are laid to rest in the cemetery.
Moments later, the two, joined by Michael Kessler, CEO of the Young Marines, gathered to reflect on a moment both teens called “solemn” and “humbling.” The team is in Hawaii to participate in a weekend of activities to mark the 72nd anniversary of the sneak attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy.
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“The first image you see is a huge statue of Lady Freedom and it is amazing how you can be in such a solemn ground, where there are many of our veterans who gave their lives for their freedom in World War II. It’s a humbling experience to be a part of that. The vets are getting older and passing away and soon we won’t have any left,” said Oscar, a junior at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami.
“When I first got here, it was extremely unreal for me,” added Albert, a freshman at Miami Jackson Senior High. “A great experience. I never thought I’d be in such a beautiful place like Hawaii. I’m a big supporter of the troops so it was a great honor. So many men and women laid down their lives.”
On Saturday, the pair will march in a Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in Honolulu and help carry the banners of the 12 U.S. Navy capital ships that were attacked at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time on Dec. 7, 1941. Both say the experience at Friday’s ceremony cemented their passion for the U.S. military.
“I see myself standing in basic training, becoming a proud Marine. I will make a career out of it and spend my entire life in the military serving our great nation,” Albert said during a telephone interview from Honolulu on Friday.
The Young Marines run drills at the Miami-Dade Public Safety Training Institute in Doral. Albert appreciates the discipline he has learned.
“I like the military lifestyle. ... This taught me great things like teamwork,” Albert said. The Pearl Harbor vets, those he met at the event and those who gave their lives, inspired him.
Oscar, similarly, tapped into the solemn, respectful mood under piercingly clear blue skies Friday morning in Hawaii.
“I’m drawn to the military ethos, drawn by the leadership and discipline they instill,” said the Caracas native. “I see myself attending the Naval Academy at Annapolis to pursue a computer-science degree. I don’t know if I’ll make it a career, but I definitely want to give back to the country that gave me so much.”
The boys left Tuesday for Hawaii to join 65 other members of Young Marines units from across the country. On Thursday, they cleaned the beach at the Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay as a community-service project.
More than 2,400 Americans — 2,402 to be precise — died in the attack, which led the U.S. into World War II. Another 1,282 were wounded.
Robin K. Hood, an adult leader in the Doral unit who participated at the ceremony last year, will never forget the day she escorted a Pearl Harbor survivor in the annual parade. She walked with Mickey Ganitch, a Navy veteran who was about to play a game of football with shipmates when the attack came.
Last December, at a spry 93, Ganitch refused to sit in the bus and insisted on walking the parade route. Hood said she got goose bumps hearing Ganitch’s stories.
“This was living history, not something you read in a textbook,” she said.
Oscar and Albert raised money for their trip by collecting funds at grocery stores and holding a car wash. Hood said they’ll come back with a special appreciation for the men and women who serve in the armed forces.
“It’s life-changing when you get to participate with veterans like that,” she said.
The teens agreed. “We can learn that life is very fragile and liberty can be taken away in a split second,’’ Oscar said. “We can learn from our mistakes and learn to get better and work on improving ourselves as a society and as a nation so we can endure for centuries to come.”
Kessler — standing with his Young Marines from Miami-Dade near the wreaths of red, white, and blue — felt proud.
“It’s another opportunity for our Young Marines to interact with veterans and they get to learn of the experiences of the vets,” he said. “And you can’t put a price tag on that.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.