TAMPA — From his perch aboard the USS Maryland, Edward Socha witnessed a frightful scene.
Shrapnel flying everywhere, flames licking the surface of the water and ships swaying as bomb blasts roared.
"I gasped at the sight of the (USS) Oklahoma bottoms up," Socha said. "I watched the whole harbor just erupt."
As a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Socha shared his memories of the day with dozens who gathered at Veterans Memorial Park east of Tampa on Saturday to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the event.
Socha had been on his way to church that Sunday morning when the Japanese dropped the first torpedo.
"We thought it was some kind of drill," Socha said. "Probably done by the Marines because they are the only ones who get up that early in the morning," he quipped.
But when Socha saw the rising sun emblem on the planes, he realized what was happening.
Socha, who is now 92 and lives in Sun City Center, is one of only a few thousand witnesses still alive.
"About 84,000 people were there that day and there are only 3,000 of us left," Socha said.
To help preserve those memories, officials broke ground Saturday on a World War II memorial at the park that will feature several statues and brick pavers inscribed with donors' names.
In April 1944, Ed Dement's Army Air Forces plane was hit during a mission over Yugoslavia. He went down and was captured by German forces.
"I bailed out at 10,000 feet over the mountains and ran into a fir tree," Dement said Saturday. "I was injured quite severely and was captured after six hours."
Dement, now 89 and living in Temple Terrace, remained a prisoner of war for nearly a year.
At one point, he was placed into box cars with thousands of other men for three days and nights without food or water, Dement said.
In April 1945, Gen. George S. Patton appeared at his camp and within hours women from the American Red Cross were serving doughnuts and coffee, he said.
He returned home to cheering crowds within weeks.
In Tampa, those who weren't serving in the war were at work supporting it, said George Howell III.
Howell's grandfather owned the Tampa Ship Building Co. Hundreds of people, from women to high school students to retirees, built 76 ships for the Navy during the war, Howell said.
The company also maintained or repaired another 500 ships in that time, he said.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.