On Dec. 7, 1941, a badly burned Lauren Bruner escaped the fate of 1,177 fellow crew members on the stricken USS Arizona by climbing hand-over-hand across a rope
70 feet above oil-soaked and fiery Pearl Harbor to the safety of an
This year, on the 78th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack, he’s expected to be the very last to rejoin fallen crew still entombed on the sunken battleship during
a sunset interment ceremony.
Mirada, Calif., man died on Sept. 10 at age 98. Chet Danforth, who is 95, said he will be at Pearl Harbor for the placement of his older brother’s ashes in turret 4 on the warship-turned-grave.
More than 900 men who perished when a 1,760-pound Japanese armor-piercing bomb found its mark, igniting a million pounds of gunpowder, were never recovered from the battleship.
“I’m going to be handing that urn to the diver,” said Danforth, who lives in Oregon. “… It’s something that will never happen again, and it is a distinct honor.”
As the sun sets on Bruner’s life, so does it too on the greatest generation that served at Pearl Harbor and through World War II.
An Arizona crew that once numbered 1,512 is now down to three. Survivors Lou Conter and Ken Potts are both 98. Don Stratton is 97. All have plans to be buried in family plots, individuals close to them say.
Since 1982, 43 other Arizona survivors chose to be interred in gun turret 4, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the memorial.
Randy Stratton said his father and Potts are not able to make the trip to Hawaii, but Conter plans to attend the interment ceremony.
“I think all the dignitaries are coming out for this one, just being that this is the last of the heroes going back on board,” Randy Stratton said.
A total of 27 World War II veterans so far have indicated they are coming out for this year’s commemoration, whose theme is “Glimmers of Victory,” said Jay Blount, chief of interpretation and education at the Pearl Harbor National
Next year marks the
75th anniversary of the end of World War II, “and so as we lead up to that, we’re going to be focusing on different periods of the war in the Pacific,” Blount said.
One of those important points is the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, a turning point in the war for America and the subject
of a new movie by director Roland Emmerich that the Navy gives high marks for historical accuracy.
For many decades, Bruner found it too painful to talk about his experience aboard the Arizona. Visions of dead bodies caused post-traumatic stress
disorder and recurring nightmares.
Bruner found an outlet for the anguish of his Pearl Harbor past through a friendship with fellow California resident Ed McGrath and a book about the experience, “Second to the Last to Leave” — so-called because Bruner was the second to last of six men who shimmied across the rope that was passed to them high up on the superstructure of the Arizona by a sailor on the repair ship Vestal.
In his book, co-written with McGrath, Bruner described the anticipation of arriving in Hawaii in 1940
“to chase some girls in grass skirts,” holystoning the deck and drills on the Arizona, nickel beer on base, and shore patrol duty among the infamous Hotel Street bars in Honolulu.
During the Pearl Harbor attack, and on the way up
to the port side anti-aircraft “director,” Bruner, then 21, took a machine gun bullet to the leg.
Bruner and Stratton
were both in the gun director — a metal box 70 feet off the water — when the big bomb hit, nearly cooking them in the oven-like environment.
“My T-shirt had caught fire. And my back, both arms and right side were charcoaled,” Bruner said in his book. Bodies floated everywhere in the harbor.
“One dead Marine, close to the ship, still had his eyes open and seemed to look straight up at us,” Bruner wrote.
McGrath, who visited regularly with the single Bruner, said he often told him he wanted to go back to his ship to be with his best friend and shipmate Billy Mann again.
Bruner also said that “people never went to visit people at graveyards,”
McGrath said. He had said, “Well, I want to be buried back on the Arizona, because … I know a lot of
people are going to visit
me every day.”
Randy Stratton said his
father had previously decided not to be interred on the Arizona, saying, “You know, I’ve been cremated once (on the ship), I’m not going to be cremated twice.”
Conter, another surviving crew member, told Stratton that he, too, does not plan to be returned to the Arizona because his wife is buried elsewhere.
“Lou said, ‘No, my wife is there by herself, I don’t want her to be by herself,’ ” Stratton related.
When he returned for Dec. 7 commemorations, Bruner liked to stop at Smith’s Union Bar on Hotel Street, which was part of his old stomping ground before the war, to down a few Longboard beers and remember those earlier days.
McGrath is planning a wake for Bruner at the bar at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 with a hula dancer, three bagpipers and the singing of “Aloha ‘Oe.” The remembrance is open to the public.
“Other than Pearl Harbor, that (Smith’s Union) was his favorite reason to come back to the islands,” McGrath said.