SAN LEANDRO, CALIFORNIA (WTAJ) – One hundred and one year-old Mickey Ganitch is a US Navy veteran.

His military career is marked by one momentous event: the Pearl Harbor attack.

When dawn broke on December 7, 1941, Ganitch and his fellow servicemen were geared up for a very different day.

“I was on the USS Pennsylvania battleship in Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. I was on the ship’s football team. We were going to play the USS Arizona for fleet football championship that day,” he says.

But the showdown never happened.

Instead, Japanese planes rained bombs on the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

As the aerial assault began at 7:55 a.m., Ganitch scrambled from the ship’s living compartment to his battle station about 70 feet above the main deck. His job was to serve as a lookout and report “anything that was suspicious.”

“We didn’t have time to play the game. I had to go to my battle station up in the crow’s nest in my football uniform. I didn’t have time to change clothes at all,” he recalls.

He saw a plane coming over the top of a nearby building. His ship’s gunners trained their guns on the aircraft and shot it down.

The Pennsylvania was in dry dock at the time, which protected it from the torpedoes that pummeled so many other vessels that day. It was one of the first to return fire on the attacking planes. Even so, the Pennsylvania lost 31 men. Ganitch said a 500-pound bomb missed him by just 45 feet.

“So you do what you had to do. You realize that we’re in the war itself and that things had changed. And we just got to get used to what has to be done.”

The USS Arizona suffered a much worse fate, losing 1,177 Marines and sailors as it quickly sank after being pierced by two bombs.

More than 900 men remain entombed on the ship where it rests on the seafloor in the harbor.  Altogether, more than 2,300 U.S. troops died in the attack.

It’s because of them that Ganitch feels obliged to return to Pearl Harbor for an annual remembrance ceremony.

“Fifty years ago, they started having a reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors to get together and we’d always be in Hawaii there for 7th of December and have services there.”

Seventy-nine years after the attack, the health risks of the coronavirus pandemic are preventing Ganitch and other Pearl Harbor survivors from attending an annual ceremony remembering those killed in the attack.

The 101-year-old has attended most years since the mid-2000s, but will have to observe the moment from California this year.

The National Park Service and the Navy, who jointly host the annual event, have also closed the ceremony to the public to limit the size of the gathering. The event with will be livestreamed online instead.

“We had a lot of people die that particular day. A lot of the people, a lot of them that I knew died that day. So I figure that by being there, we’re honoring them,” says Ganitch.

“They’re the heroes. They say, oh, you’re a hero. Well, I’m a live hero. But I got a lot of dead heroes, too. So it’s honoring them, respecting them for their service.”

Ganitch served the remainder of the war on the Pennsylvania, participating in the U.S. recapture of Attu and Kiska in Alaska. The battleship bombarded Japanese positions to help with the amphibious assaults of Pacific islands like Kwajelin, Saipan and Guam.

Ganitch remained in the Navy for more than 20 years. Afterward, he briefly worked in a bowling alley before becoming the shop foreman at a fish net manufacturing plant.

Along the way, he had four children, 13 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and 9 great-great-grandchildren. He and his wife, who is now 90, have been married 57 years.