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Fort Worth man, a Pearl Harbor survivor, recounts his role in a turning point in U.S. history

Posted Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- This day brings back a lot of memories for Bob Hanna, mostly ones he doesn't like to share.

For one, Hanna doesn't want to sound like a braggart.

"I'm no hero and never claimed to be," he said.

Secondly, Hanna isn't eager to relive a surprise attack 70 years ago today, one that caught the U.S. military in Hawaii flat-footed on a Sunday morning. Two hours after the Japanese roared over Oahu, more than 2,400 people were dead, 21 ships sunk or heavily damaged, and almost 350 planes destroyed or damaged.

There's not much to say when you get whipped, Hanna said. "We didn't spend a lot of time talking about it afterward," he said. "Not good for morale, you know."

In American history, Pearl Harbor is not a place anymore, a bit like 9-11 is not a date anymore. More than just a description of where the attack happened, Pearl Harbor has come to represent the end of American isolationism and perhaps naivete and the single event that forced the U.S. into the role as the mightiest democracy on earth.

An overwhelming majority of Americans either hadn't been born when it occurred or are too young to remember it, generations familiar with Pearl Harbor only through black-and-white photos. The number of eyewitnesses to that day's events are even fewer still.

That is why Hanna, who is 88, is in the Star-Telegram today.

He called the newspaper a week ago to ask whether anyone knew how many Pearl Harbor survivors were still around.

One survivor in East Texas, William Eckel, who is still active with the rapidly fading Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said there are maybe 2,000 nationwide.

That led to several hours of conversation at Hanna's house in east Fort Worth, where he and Patricia, his wife of 60 years, live.

A quick enlistment

"It's impossible for people to understand how totally surprised we were and how unprepared we were," he said.

As Japanese dive bombers and fighters gathered unseen in the air for the attack, Hanna was sleeping in his bunk at the naval air station at Kaneohe Bay, several miles from Ford Island where the big battleships were moored. He'd been out late the night before with a bit of weekend liberty.

"I was trying to put the make on a girl," he said.

When the first wave of Japanese aircraft appeared over Kaneohe Bay, Hanna heard a commotion that he couldn't quite understand for a Sunday morning.

"In comes Shorty Lunn, waving a .45 in the air," he said. "That got my interest. I ran outside and saw people running around and saw planes strafing us. At that moment, I didn't know who it was or why it was happening."

Hanna had been in the Navy a year after enlisting at 17 in Fort Worth. By then, he'd long dropped out of Trimble Tech High School.

"A buddy and I were riding in the city bus, and we saw a sign that said, 'Join the Navy,'" he said. "I pulled the string for the bus to stop and went and joined the Navy. That is the gospel. That was all the thinking that went into it. My mom was glad to sign the papers. I was just getting into trouble anyway."

A child of the Depression, raised by a single mother who had to bounce from one rental property to the next, Hanna stood 6 feet tall and weighed 149 pounds. He admits missing an awful lot of meals.

"The intent of boot camp is to thin you up and harden you," he said. "I came out of boot camp at 185 pounds. I outgrew every piece of clothing they had given me."

Acts of heroism

The Navy sent Hanna to Kaneohe Bay to help build an air station where PBY Catalinas could perform patrols, search and rescue, and submarine hunts. The Japanese ruined all that work with three waves of attacks that morning. He jumped aboard a firetruck and headed to the hangars first, then eventually made his way to the armory, where a bomb blast knocked him over but didn't wound him. He also said he spent some time hugging the ground.

"They were strafing the firetruck when I was hanging on it, and a guy got hit," he said. "I'll remember that sound forever."

One man, Chief Petty Officer John W. Finn, earned a Medal of Honor at Kaneohe Bay that morning when he found a .30-caliber machine gun, carried it out into the open with a makeshift tripod and spent the entire attack shooting at the planes. He was repeatedly wounded but never left his exposed position. Finn died last year at age 100.

Hanna said he has always believed that another sailor should have earned a Medal of Honor that day, a young man named Richard Sands. A great many officers lived away from the air station, hangars and runway and never made it to the site of the attack, he said.

"He was a [petty officer] second class, and he took charge," he said. "If he were alive or if I knew how to reach his relatives, I would tell them that he deserved the Medal of Honor."

No quick victories

Kaneohe Bay was virtually defenseless, Hanna said, a product of both austere Navy budgets and the belief that weapons were unneeded. The few machine guns and the Springfield .30-06 rifles were locked up in the armory.

The sailors got into the armory that morning and began cleaning the weapons because everyone on that station knew the Japanese ground force was coming as soon as the dive bombers left.

They just knew the Japanese were going to invade.

Obviously that never happened and was never Japan's intention. The Japanese had hoped to achieve a quick, decisive victory over the U.S. fleet and keep it at bay while they continued their conquest of Asia.

Hanna spent the rest of the war in various Pacific outposts and bases, including stints at Ford Island, Johnston Atoll, back at Kaneohe Bay, aboard the USS Enterprise and at Guam. He finally left behind his sailor dungarees in December 1946 and returned to Fort Worth to get married, have children and get a job.

He remembers well the feeling on Dec. 8, 1941, that the U.S. would really whip the Japanese, a fight that he and his mates figured would be over in four or five months.

Around April 1942, he and some of the junior sailors saw a group of salty chief petty officers crying over the fall of Bataan in the Philippines.

"They thought that place would never fall," he said. "They knew then that we were up against a serious challenge. I guess then we knew how tough it would be."

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547

Twitter: @startelegram

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