It’s September 2019, and WWII U.S. Navy veteran Lauren Bruner has died at the age of 98. A very special funeral has been arranged for this true American hero – a survivor of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. At the USS Arizona National Memorial in Honolulu, a navy diver clad in a jet-black wetsuit takes the simple casket holding Bruner’s ashes. He then hands it to a buddy dressed in diving gear from the 1940s. Indeed, this is an extraordinary ceremony for an incredible man.
Lauren Fay Bruner came into the world in Shelton, Washington, in November 1920. His father Leroy labored in a shingle factory but died when Bruner was just six years old – leaving his mother, Lucille, to bring up her six children. The family then moved to McClearly, Washington, where Lucille worked in a lumber mill. But she lost her job during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Hard times for the Bruner family meant that the children had to be parceled off to various other households. The boy later found a job lugging milk cans at the tender age of eight. But it turned out that the dairy was running an illegal moonshine operation and he had actually been delivering illegal liquor in those milk cans without knowing. Fortunately, he was under the age of criminal responsibility so escaped punishment.
One of Bruner’s brothers appeared on the scene two years later and he had some unexpected news. Their mother had remarried – prompting Bruner to rejoin his mother and her new husband. Graduating from high school in Elma, Washington, Bruner found that jobs were scarce and that was what prompted him to join the U.S. Navy just ten days after his 18th birthday.
Many years later, in an interview recorded by the National Park Service, Bruner remembered, “There was no way to get a job so the next best thing was to join the service.” So he enlisted with the U.S. Navy in November 1938 and started his military life at the Naval Training Station in San Diego, California.
In 1939 Bruner was assigned to the battleship USS Arizona and took the position of Fire Controlman Third Class. That meant he was one of the men responsible for maintaining and firing the ship’s formidable guns. And that was the post he would remain in until the fateful date of December 7, 1941, the day of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
We’ll get back to what happened to Bruner during the Pearl Harbor attack shortly, but first let’s take the time to look at the background to the Japanese assault. World War II had started in September 1939 with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. At that point the main Allied countries opposing Adolf Hitler’s armies were Britain and France. For now, the U.S. stood aloof from the conflict.
The United States maintained its neutrality as war raged on in Europe and North Africa. But that would change overnight with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The latter country wanted to assert its control of the Southeast Asia region. And the bombing of the U.S Navy at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii was intended to stop the Americans from interfering in Japanese imperial ambitions.
However, the Japanese attack was akin to throwing stones at a hornet’s nest. The result was that they had another enemy to fight as well as the Chinese, British, Dutch and French in the Far East and the Pacific. The U.S. then declared war on Japan a day after the attack. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the U.S. and this was reciprocated. America was now well and truly embroiled in WWII.
But let’s get back to that December day when Imperial Japan made its unannounced attack on the U.S. Navy ships moored at the Naval Station Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Honolulu. It was 7:48 a.m. on a Sunday morning when the first wave of Japanese aircraft including dive bombers, torpedo bombers and fighter planes appeared in the skies over Pearl Harbor.
The first group of Japanese aircraft to attack Pearl Harbor was made up of 183 planes. This huge formation included a total of 51 Val dive-bombers carrying 550-pound bombs, 49 Nakajima B5N “Kate” bombers armed with powerful 1,760-pound armor-piercing munitions and 40 bombers equipped with torpedoes. And these aircraft were accompanied by 43 Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes.
In fact, this first wave was detected by a radar station at Opana Point on Oahu Island but was mistaken for an expected flight of six American B-17 bombers flying in from California. The Japanese aircraft continued towards their destination and unleashed their fearsome payload on Pearl Harbor. The torpedo bombers led the way with orders to attack the large battleships.
Meanwhile, the Japanese dive bombers attacked their targets: the U.S. airfields on Oahu. Soon, the second wave of aircraft appeared and by now the assault had involved a total of 353 planes which had taken off from six aircraft carriers. The bombing lasted a total of 90 minutes, and then it was time for the Americans to count their losses.
After a terrifying and intense 90-minute attack, 2,403 Americans were dead and another 1,143 had been wounded. Eighteen ships were sunk or forced aground and 188 planes were destroyed. Furthermore, of the eight battleships moored at Pearl Harbor that day, four were sunk. And one of those was Fire Controlman Third Class Lauren Bruner’s ship: the USS Arizona.
We’ll be back with Bruner on the stricken Arizona in a moment but first let’s find out more about this formidable battleship. Built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 15 months, she was launched in front of a crowd of some 75,000 in June 1915. The ship was 608 feet from stem to stern and 97 feet across at her widest. Her menacing armament also included 22 five-inch and four huge 14-inch guns.
After the U.S. joined World War I following its declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, the ship stayed in the States and was used to train Merchant Navy gunners. In the years after WWI, the Arizona’s main duties consisted of training up naval personnel, and she went through an extensive update in 1929. Then 11 years later, the Arizona and the entire Pacific Fleet was ordered to Pearl Harbor.
Of course, one of those aboard the Arizona when she transferred from California to Hawaii was Lauren Bruner. The next year, on December 7, 1941, the first he would have known about the surprise Japanese attack was when his ship’s air raid siren started screeching at around 7.55 a.m. The Arizona was one of the targets for the first wave of Japanese planes.
At 8:00 a.m. ten Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bombers appeared in the sky – five from the carrier Kaga and five from the Hiryu. Their target was the Arizona, and each of the planes was armed with a modified armor-piercing shell packed with some 1,700 pounds of explosives. The planes screamed in at an altitude of around 9,800 feet.
The bombers from the Kaga dropped their deadly payload from the middle of the Arizona’s length back to her stern, while those from Hiryu concentrated on the ship’s prow. Four of the bombs hit the battleship, the last of which caused by far the most damage. This final bomb blasted through the deck near the ship’s bows and a few seconds later detonated the munitions store below with utterly catastrophic results.
The interior of the Arizona’s front section was obliterated. The conning tower and the forward gun turrets collapsed into the ship’s hull. The funnel and foremast fell forward and the ship was practically torn in half. The fires ignited by the explosion took two days to burn out. There were 1,512 sailors aboard the Arizona; 1,177 were killed, which was almost half of all those who died during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Just before the Arizona was hit, Bruner, by now a Fire Controlman Second Class, was thinking of nothing more than the shore leave he was due that morning and a date he had lined up. Years later, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser quoted Bruner’s memories. He recalled, “I had liberty that Sunday and was looking forward to my second date with a pretty Japanese bartender by the name of Nikki.”
Bruner continued, “I was supposed to meet her in downtown Honolulu at 10 in the morning, and then we were going to spend the day at Waikiki Beach. Nikki was the one who taught me how to use chopsticks, and even today every time I use them, I think of her.” But the Japanese Empire intervened and Bruner never saw Nikki again.
But when the Arizona’s alarm sounded, all thoughts of Nikki evaporated. Bruner dashed to his battle station manning the five-inch anti-aircraft controls high on the forward superstructure some 70 feet above the water. On the way to his station Bruner was hit twice in the legs by Japanese machine gun fire. And that wasn’t the end of it. When his ship exploded he sustained burns to 73 percent of his body.
The force of the detonating ship’s magazine threw Bruner from his station towards the ship’s stern. Despite the severity of his injuries, he managed to find his footing, but how was he going to escape the blazing ship? At that moment, Bruner realized one of his buddies was with him on the deck: Seaman First Class Donald Stratton.
At last a stroke of luck came the severely stricken sailors’ way. Bruner spotted a man aboard the nearby USS Vestal, a repair ship, and hailed him. Vestal had herself taken a couple of Japanese bombs and then been set on fire by the Arizona’s explosion. Nevertheless, the man on the Vestal’s deck returned Bruner’s call.
The force of that Arizona conflagration had blown various men clean off the decks of the Vestal including her skipper Commander Cassin Young. Somehow he’d managed to swim back to his ship and clamber aboard her. Once he was back on deck he immediately countermanded an “abandon ship” order that someone had shouted in his absence.
And it was well that Young did reverse that order, since it gave the man who’d now spotted Bruner, Stratton and four others aboard the burning Arizona the chance to act. Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Joseph George now threw a literally lifesaving line from the Vestal across to the blazing battleship. The Arizona men managed to catch and secure the rope.
The six men then huddled together on the Arizona to inch their way, hand over hand, across the water burning with spilt oil towards the Vestal. It was a punishing 70 feet length of rope they had to make their way along, but all six of the sailors made it. Sadly, two of those were later to die from their injuries. But Bruner and Stratton were among the survivors.
In 2016 Bruner penned a memoir of his time in the U.S. Navy: Second to the Last to Leave USS Arizona. In it, he remembered Captain Young’s words when Stratton and he arrived on the Vestal. Young ordered, “Get these two burnt b******s to Solace, straightaway! Doesn’t look like either will make it.” Fortunately for the duo, they both did.
Solace was a hospital ship moored in the harbor and the wounded were now taken to her aboard the Vestal’s launch. That was the very boat that should have been taking Bruner ashore for his date with that Japanese bartender. Instead, he found himself sitting on the launch next to another Arizona crewmate: Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Alvin Dvorak.
In his memoir, Bruner recalled that their skin was “blackened like charbroiled chicken. Both of us had our hair burned off.” As the title of Bruner’s 2016 memoir indicates, he was the second last man who got off the Arizona alive. Dvorak was the last, but his injuries were even worse than Bruner’s. The doctors couldn’t save him and he died a couple of weeks later on Christmas Eve 1941 at the age of just 23.
Incredibly, despite those horrific injuries he suffered, it wasn’t the end of the war for Bruner – not by a long chalk. The sailor spent seven months recovering in hospital and the following year was assigned to a newly commissioned destroyer: the USS Coghlan. Bruner now went on to take part in eight major naval engagements and reached the rank of Fire Control Chief Petty Officer.
During the remainder of WWII Bruner saw action in the waters around the Aleutian Islands, west of Alaska, and the South Pacific. The Coghlan was also near Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped on it and Bruner toured what was left of the city after it was destroyed. According to the Lauren F. Bruner USS Arizona Memorial Foundation, the devastated ruins convinced him that it was time to forgive the Japanese. It must have been a sobering experience, but at last the war was over.
Bruner retired from the U.S. Navy in 1947 and went on to work in a factory near Los Angeles for 30 years. The veteran married twice and had a third long-term relationship, but he outlived all of his partners. For many years, Bruner lived in La Mirada, California, and when USA Today caught up with him he was 94 and living alone.
The ex-Navy man told USA Today, “I never talked about it much then. I just didn’t want to. I still get to the point when I’m talking about it, first thing you know, I go to bed at night, wake up and can’t sleep for a week.” But after the 50th anniversary of the Arizona’s sinking in 1991, a survivors’ group made contact with Bruner.
Now Bruner was able to meet other members of the rapidly shrinking group of Arizona survivors which had originally numbered 335. When Bruner died at the age of 98 on September 10, 2019, only three survivors were still living. One of those was the veteran’s buddy: Don Stratton. Sadly, he too died aged 97 on February 15, 2020. The last two survivors, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, both 98, are still alive at the time of writing.
Before Bruner died, he had made clear his wishes about funeral arrangements. He wanted his ashes to be laid to rest in the wreckage of his old ship: the USS Arizona. The stricken boat is preserved in Pearl Harbor where it sank alongside a purpose-built national memorial. Those sailors who were serving aboard the battleship in December 1941 are accorded the privilege of being interred in her remains.
Bruner’s funeral was an intensely moving ceremony. The urn containing Bruner’s ashes was carried from the memorial center’s main building along a jetty set above the sunken ship. Four U.S. Navy divers waited for the urn to be handed to one of their number. He held it high above his head while his three buddies supported him. The group of divers then slowly moved away from the jetty before diving beneath the surface.
Down at the wreck, two other divers wearing original diving gear from the 1940s took charge of Fire Control Chief Petty Officer Lauren Bruner’s mortal remains. These were then carried into one of the ship’s gun turrets and carefully stowed in their last resting place. Bruner was the 44th Arizona survivor to be interred aboard the wrecked ship, and will be the last. Stratton was buried in Nebraska and the two remaining survivors plan to be buried with family.
National Public Radio quoted Bruner’s words from a 2014 interview. He said, “All my family and friends have been buried in various places [and] cemeteries. But it seems like after a while, nobody pays attention to them anymore after about five years. I hope that a lot of people will still be coming to the Arizona. I would be glad to see them.” And indeed, more than two million people visit the national memorial each year.