Don Fosburg, 84, recalled friends and family killed in World War II as he marked the 65th anniversary of the end of the conflict on Thursday.
"You start thinking about all the guys who didn't make it. I had a cousin who was on Bataan and didn't survive. His brother was blown up off the coast of Africa," said Fosburg, who was a radioman aboard the USS Missouri during the war. "You start to thinking about the guys that you knew. You can't help but do that. And maybe you think you're pretty lucky."
Fosburg returned to the Missouri — now a museum moored in Pearl Harbor — for a ceremony commemorating 6½ decades since Japan formally signed surrender papers on board the battleship when it was anchored in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.
He remembered the mood being calmer than some two weeks before that occasion, on the night of Aug. 15, when sailors cheered and hollered after a fellow radioman got word Japan had agreed to unconditionally surrender.
"He woke me up: 'They've accepted the surrender. The war is over!' Then it went through the ship, and it was quite a bit of celebration," Fosburg said. "It woke everybody up."
Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki, who delivered the keynote address, hailed the sacrifices of those who fought on Pacific atolls, European forests and manned supply depots and refueling stations.
"All great leaders know the mightiest undertakings succeed because of the strength and courage, determination and sacrifice, of men and women whose names will never be recorded in history books or memorialized in museums," said Shinseki, a retired four-star general.
The Missouri today sits just behind the USS Arizona, which sank in the Japanese attack that pushed the U.S. into the war in 1941. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Italy, told the crowd the two ships are the bookends of World War II.
The Arizona represents the sacrifice and resilient spirit of the American people, while the Missouri speaks of America's triumphant victory, he said.
"They send a strong message to our allies, while cautioning potential enemies, that we can endure hardships, that we persevere and, yes, we will emerge victorious," Inouye said.
The "Mighty Mo" was launched in 1944 and fought in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It was decommissioned in 1955 but revived in the 1980s, after which it fired some of the first shots of the Gulf War in 1991.
The battleship went into dry dock last year for three months of sanding and painting to remove rust that had built up on the ship's hull. The $18 million overhaul was its first in 17 years.
One of the Missouri's wartime crew, 94-year-old Frank Borrell, said he was seeing his battleship for the last time. Borrell has been diagnosed with lung cancer and was told he has four months to live.
"I told my wife, 'Before I die, I want to see my ship again,'" Borrell said. "This couldn't have been a better place for me to see it."
The Beacon, N.Y. native, now retired to Orlando, Fla., came to Hawaii with the help of the Dream Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that grants wishes to adults facing life-threatening illnesses.