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Larry Petretti is a rare bird, on a couple of counts.

He's 89 and still working as a real estate broker in Santa Rosa. And he's one of precious few people alive who truly remembers Pearl Harbor, who was there, in uniform and on the water throughout the attack that changed the nation and the world.

Petretti didn't have to ponder long when asked what he hopes younger Americans and future generations will value about Pearl Harbor.

"It's all the young guys who gave their lives, got burned to death," said the Navy veteran. He was 18 years, four months old and a bosun's mate aboard the moored repair ship USS Whitney the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

"We didn't have the first idea what war was," he said. But war came anyway, dealt by surprise by 353 Japanese bombers, fighters and torpedo planes.

Not long into what had dawned as yet another glowing Hawaiian morning, Petretti was hauling dead or horribly wounded young sailors into a motor launch.

"I hope they're never forgotten," he said, "even when the last of the Pearl Harbor survivors are dead, which won't be long."

No one knows for sure how many of the 84,000 former GIs who were stationed on or near the island of Oahu that morning 71 years ago are still alive. But there aren't more than a few thousand; fewer than six are likely to be present for the public observance at 9 a.m. today at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.

Not all Pearl veterans are of the same mind regarding what the lasting legacy or lesson of America's most momentous military disaster should be.

Sonoma Valley resident Malcolm Moisan, who served aboard the same repair ship as Petretti, agrees with the motto of the now-disbanded Pearl Harbor Survivors Association: "Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert!"

Moisan, 93, said Pearl Harbor should stand as a reminder that the country must be ever vigilant in a dangerous world.

He remains astounded by how utterly unsuspecting he was, until the moment death rained from the clear skies of Oahu.

"It was like a dream," he said, "Our fleet was unsinkable! And to look out there and see all the smoke and the bombs. I seen the Arizona hit, and the Utah."

Moisan, who spent much of his life at sea, mostly as a marine engineer with Standard Oil, said he hopes Americans will remain awake to the life-and-death necessity of guarding against the new threat — terrorist attacks such as those of Sept. 11.

He believes domestic dams, bridges, power plants and water supplies are the new targets, and that only supreme vigilance will protect them.

"It's all going to be undercover now," the old sailor said.

In Lakeport, Pearl vet Bill Slater, 88, said the primary lesson of Dec. 7, 1941, is that a failure to keep close tabs on the country's enemies and potential enemies can exact a terrible price.

He believes America needs to have "a good band of spies out there and know what the other guy is doing." He added, "and keep an eye on your friends, too."

Slater said he could barely have felt more safe and secure as he awoke 71 years ago on the great battleship, the USS Pennsylvania.

"One of the first things I saw when I got up there (from below decks) was the Oklahoma roll over. Well, I didn't feel too safe then."

Beyond the need for extreme vigilance, Slater hopes a lasting lesson of Pearl Harbor and World War II will be the unacceptability of war as a means of resolving conflict.

"I can tell you from experience," he said, "it's not a pretty thing."

Herb Louden, the 95-year-old dean of Sonoma County's Pearl Harbor survivors, holds the same view.

Seven decades after the attack that killed more than 2,300 American GIs, more than half of them aboard the exploded battleship USS Arizona, and drew the U.S. into World War II, he said he hopes the nation will forever view Pearl Harbor and every other day of war as preventable human failure.

"We haven't won any wars," said Louden, who witnessed the '41 attack from the hospital ship USS Solace. "We lost. We lost lives and we lost limbs."

Don Blair of Rohnert Park, still prone to tears when recalling scenes of death aboard the stricken battleship USS Nevada, has come to believe that Pearl Harbor drove home the need for Americans to be more watchful of foreign governments — and their own.

Blair, 92, said he grew up believing America was always right.

"Later on, I had to kind of change that," he said. "Sometimes we are guilty."

He said he now believes the United States was not an entirely innocent victim at Pearl Harbor because Washington at the least provoked Tokyo through actions that included embargoes on oil and scrap metal.

"Our government was guilty of baiting the Japanese," Blair said. He hopes memories of Pearl Harbor will long inspire Americans to closely watch potential enemies — "I think we should definitely keep an eye on China," he said — and to challenge their own government's justifications for war.

One of Sonoma County's best-known Pearl Harbor survivors, Jesse Love, 90, thought for a bit about what he would hope future generations will remember about the attack that drew America into mankind's deadliest and most destructive war.

"The misery and the suffering," said Love, who witnessed plenty of both from the harbor's Ford Island Naval Air Station.

"It was a fearful day," he said, adding that he'll be pleased if long into the future, Americans will pause on Dec. 7 to remember "the ones who will never come home and the price they paid for our freedom."

(You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)