DERRY — James Bilotta had just started his breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and coffee on the sunny Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

The 21-year-old Marine decided to eat outside at Camp Catlin, near Pearl Harbor. It may have saved his life.

Japanese bombers unleashed their sneak attack against the American base at 7:55 a.m.

Among the early targets was the mess hall.

“It was lucky that we were not in the mess hall, or in our tents, because both places were fired upon by the Japanese. There would have been many more people killed besides the sailors on the ships in the harbor,” Bilotta said.

That attack — “a date which will live in infamy” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it in an address to the nation the next day — left more than 2,400 Americans dead and led the United States into World War II.

Bilotta, now 96, will never forget that day. Speaking from his home on Al Street in Derry with his wife Edie by his side, he recalled the horrors.

Remembering the attack

As a young Marine, Bilotta didn’t know what was happening as the first bombs fell.

He remembers looking up into the sky, seeing puffs of black smoke everywhere.

He hoped it was some sort of a drill.

Then a bugler blew the call to arms, and Bilotta knew Pearl Harbor was under attack.

“We heard the machine guns firing and bombs dropping and then we were assigned to our duty stations,” he recalled an untitled, unpublished memoir.

The Japanese attack continued for two hours and 20 minutes. In addition to the thousands killed, nearly 1,200 were wounded. Eighteen ships had been sunk or damaged. More than 300 aircraft were damaged or destroyed.

When Bilotta saw the harbor the next day, the battleship Arizona was still aflame. Trapped sailors tapped on pipes, waiting for rescuers, who in many cases would never come.

“It was terrible. It was an awful mess,” he said.

Bilotta brought out a newspaper insert that displayed an artist’s rendition of the Pearl Harbor attack, showing mangled battleships, fire and destruction.

He said the gruesome image didn’t do justice to what he witnessed.

“It was much worse than that,” he said, clutching the paper.

After the attack, the Marines split up his unit. Bilotta was sent to Palmyra Island, about 90 miles south of Pearl Harbor, where he remained through February 1942.

A call to service

After the attack, many Americans enlisted in the service.

However, Bilotta joined the Marines well before the first bombs exploded — at age 19 in 1939.

The Somerville, Massachusetts, native never knew much about his father, who died when he was just a toddler, or his mother, who died when he was 6.

Bilotta was a ward of the state before he joined the Marines. His service began with boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Bilotta became part of the 3rd Defense Battalion in 1940, stationed in Cuba and the Panama Canal region before his service brought him to Pearl Harbor in November of 1941.

After Pearl Harbor, Bilotta served in the South Pacific. He faced Japanese bombs again in 1944, near the Marshall and Gilbert islands.

Bilotta remained in the Marines for six years before heading back to New England with many medals for his service, including those for good conduct, World War II Victory, the American Defense Campaign, Asiatic Pacific Campaign with three stars, and expertise with a rifle and pistol.

Today, he enjoys his corner of his warm living room, living a quiet life with his wife, surrounded by World War II books, videos, and other artifacts honoring his service.

He keeps a detailed box holding newspaper articles, photos and other programs from events that honored World War II veterans, including local Veterans Day and Memorial Day services in Derry. Bilotta was also the grand marshal of Derry’s Memorial Day parade in 2015.

Life after the Marines

Back home after the war, Bilotta would frequent dances to meet people. It worked — he met his future wife Edie at a ballroom in Boston.

After a year of dating, Bilotta popped the question.

“I think Eddie Cantor was on the radio,” Edie, 93, remembers. “He said, ‘Maybe we should get married.’ I said, ‘OK.’”

Married for 69 years, the two have four children. They settled in Derry in 1985.

Bilotta misses many of his old friends who have passed, especially his World War II buddy Herb Billingsley. He keeps in touch with other veterans through the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Derry. He said the connection is still strong among veterans of all wars and battles.

Edie is proud of her husband, his service and that he’s included in the newly created World War II exhibit at the Derry History Museum in the Adams Memorial Building.

The exhibit opened earlier this year and stands as a tribute to all the men and women from Derry who served during World War II with photos, music, posters and artifacts.

Bilotta said he would mark the Pearl Harbor anniversary with his wife and family.

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