By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Smith’s Union Bar, in a somewhat run-down area of Honolulu and described in tourist literature as a “dive bar”, was not where I expected to be a couple nights before the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Reputed (and disputed) to be the oldest bar Honolulu, it existed at the time of the attack and was a favorite hangout of Sailors from USS Arizona (BB 39). Memorabilia from that ill-fated ship grace the walls of the bar, some pre-dating the attack. But this night, I had been invited by family members of the remaining Arizona survivors to hang with them and Arizona survivor Lauren Bruner, and I could not possibly pass up an opportunity to personally pay my respects and express my gratitude for the service of a survivor of the USS Arizona, before it’s too late.
I’d seen four of the five survivors two days before at a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl), and met three others (Don Stratton, Lou Conter, and Ken Potts) the day before on a tour of some infrequently visited areas around Pearl Harbor, but I had not had the chance to speak with Lauren, who along with Don Stratton and four other now-deceased Sailors, had escaped the flames of the magazine explosion from high in the forward superstructure via a line thrown by Boatswain’s Mate Joseph George on the USS Vestal (AR 4).
Anytime I meet and talk with veterans that I know saw actual combat, I am always careful to go only where they want to go, no matter how curious I am to learn about their experience. I had a most interesting, if too brief, conversation with Lauren. It was clear he was quite willing to talk about Dec. 7, 2016, but clearly did not want to go to Dec. 7, 1941. So we talked about the upcoming ceremony, the various commemorative events around Honolulu, the bar, and about his newly published book, “Second to the Last to Leave USS Arizona;” I had compulsively bought a signed-copy as soon as I saw it on sale at the bar (as a naval historian, I could not help myself.)
That night I read his book, and understood. I could not put it down, except at points when I was overcome by emotion as I transposed faces of Sailors I knew during my service onto those in his book. For almost 75 years, Lauren Bruner told absolutely no one what he had seen and experienced on that terrible day, keeping to himself the unbelievably ghastly visions that haunted his waking hours and his dreams for his whole life. In the adrenalin-charged heightened sensory perception of a near-death combat experience, every horrific image was vividly seared into his brain and could not be forgotten no matter how hard he tried. He finally told his story, with the help and trust of authors Edward McGrath and Craig Thompson, with the proviso that he would never again respond to questions about what he had seen that day, and requested that no one ever ask again.
He barely escaped death at numerous points, but suffered grievous burns and injuries, as he escaped the ship, and eventually began a long, tortuous path to recovery, one in which he could not determine which was worse, the intense pain or the morphine-induced nightmares.
In his book, Bruner describes the shock and surprise of the first moments of the attack, of Sailors dying needlessly because of their inexperience, and of what he could see through the optics of his gun-director station of what was happening on the sinking USS West Virginia and USS Oklahoma. He described the reassuring sound of the Arizona fighting back as the five-inch anti-aircraft batteries quickly opened up; and then the ominous silence as they exhausted the ready-use ammunition, just before the “lucky bomb” from the Japanese high-altitude bomber hit the ship. From that point it was one gruesome horror heaped on another as he observed what happened to the crew from his vantage point high in the ship; scenes beyond any imagination of hell. He barely escaped death at numerous points, but suffered grievous burns and injuries, as he escaped the ship, and eventually began a long, tortuous path to recovery, one in which he could not determine which was worse, the intense pain or the morphine-induced nightmares.
After reading the book, there were two points that I believe Lauren Bruner would want everyone to know. It was Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Alvin Dvorak who orchestrated the escape of the last six men trapped on the Arizona, and who was the last man off, and who succumbed to his burn wounds a month later. And, it was the bravery, and physical prowess, of Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Joseph George of the USS Vestal, who threw the line to the trapped men, and refused to cut it until they had reached the Vestal, that allowed the men to escape. Bruner credits both men as the reason he is alive today.
Bruner makes no claim to being any kind of hero. But after months of painful burn rehabilitation (almost 80 percent of his body) and refusal to allow his fingers to be amputated despite real risk of gangrene infection, Bruner actively sought and returned to duty, serving on the destroyer USS Coghlan (DD 606) in eight more battles against the Japanese in the Pacific. In my book, that’s a hero.
Bruner’s book should be required reading for anyone seeking to commit Sailors into battle, and any officer or Sailor who might go into battle. It is the most brutally honest description of what happens to men aboard ship in a battle gone bad. The U.S. Navy has suffered casualties (USS Cole, USS Stark) in the last several decades, but nothing remotely on the scale of the Arizona. From my perspective, the lesson of Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona is that war is sheer hell – and it’s even worse if you’re not prepared.