LA CROSSE, Wis. -

It was the event that rocked the nation and catapulted the U.S. into World War II.

Friday, the nation marked the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Over the past seven decades, the number of vets who survived that tragic day has dwindled, but for the ones still living, they hope this day will never be forgotten.

Tucked away in his wooden chest, old photographs, documents and papers are memories Joe Sweeney of La Crosse just can't let go of.

“Here was my battle station right up here,” said Sweeney. “Starboard Bridge.”
It was March 4, 1940. He was only 21 years old and a big change was coming in his life.

“My draft number was coming up and I didn't want the Army,” said Sweeney. “So I jumped in the Navy.”

Before he knew it, he arrived at Pearl Harbor four months later.

He was the chief storekeeper at the general store and life was great.

“I had it all made,” said Sweeney. “Top rate.”

He said Dec. 7, 1941, started out just like any other day.

“Oh boy, I'll never forget it,” said Sweeney. “I was having coffee.”

He and his crewmates were then interrupted. Someone shouted the harbor was being attacked.

“We thought for sure he went off the rocker,” said Sweeney. “I stepped outside of the office and we had an ammunition hole, and I look up and sure enough, red fire balls.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor cost thousands of lives that day.

“[It was] the loudest thing I ever heard,” said Sweeney. “When the Arizona blew out of the water, I saw daylight unearthed.”

Sweeney witnessed the whole thing from his battle station aboard the U.S.S. Whitney.

“I could see it all,” said Sweeney. “Boy, our five destroyers, they were tied alongside of us. They were firing over our heads. We were right in it, right in the middle of it, but we didn't get hit.”

The U.S. would soon enter World War II.

It's these memories Sweeney can't forget.

“Never leaves you, I guess,” said Sweeney.

And he hopes no matter how many years have passed, no one will forget either.

“Oh I think you should always remember it,” said Sweeney. “Not because I was there, but because of how it happened.”

Sweeney was discharged from the Navy in 1946.

He's has made about three or four trips to Hawaii. He said every time he goes, he always makes sure to stop and spend some time at Pearl Harbor.