WWII vet­er­ans ac­com­plish fi­nal mis­sion

USS Ari­zona sur­vivors Lau­ren Bruner and Don Strat­ton’s per­sis­tence gets a fel­low sailor a Bronze Star

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Wil­liam Cole wcole@starad­ver­tiser.com

Lin­ing one wall in Smith’s Union Bar, a pop­u­lar Ho­tel Street haunt for U.S. mil­i­tary men out on the town in World War II, are pho­tos of hula girls and the USS Ari­zona at sea and later, on fire af­ter the Ja­panese at­tack.

On Tues­day, sit­ting at ta­bles against that wall were two for­mer sailors — Lau­ren Bruner, 97, and Lou Con­ter, 96 — who lived through the good times and bad on the famed bat­tle­ship.

Sev­enty-six years have passed since the “day of in­famy.” The call to “Re­mem­ber Pearl Har­bor” has faded, Ho­tel Street has faded, and the men like Bruner and Con­ter, who were there and fought back, are fad­ing, too.

A to­tal of 1,177 men died on the Ari­zona when a Ja­panese aerial bomb pierced its heart. Of the 334 or 335 sur­vivors, only five re­main. Three are here for to­day’s com­mem­o­ra­tion at Pearl Har­bor.

Two were at Smith’s Union to re­mem­ber old times. The pas­sage of so much time made their ap­pear­ance that much more poignant.

“At­ten­tion on deck!” for­mer Navy man Richard Hub­barth, 57, shouted as Bruner ar­rived in a wheel­chair. Con­ter walked in with the aid of a cane a few min­utes later.

“These things are get­ting so limited,” Hub­barth said of meet­ings with sur­vivors. “And you pay your re­spects when you can.”

Con­ter, who came in from Grass Val­ley, Calif., said the dwin­dling crew ros­ter from the Ari­zona was part of his rea­son to re­turn af­ter last year’s big 75th an­niver­sary of the Dec. 7, 1941, at­tack.

“There are three of us out here this year — Don Strat­ton and Lau­ren and my­self,” Con­ter said. “So we have to come back ev­ery year as long as we can to take care of the rest of the guys.”

Con­ter noted that the ashes of fel­low Ari­zona crew mem­ber Estellee Bird­sell were in­terred on the sunken ship ear­lier that day. But the man who sur­vived the Ari­zona and twice be­ing shot down in a PBY fly­ing boat said “if the docs let

me come, I’ll be here” next year.

Con­ter in 2014 made his first re­turn trip to Smith’s Union since 1941. In that ear­lier time he had shore pa­trol duty on Ho­tel Street, which was full of cathouses. He pa­trolled with a sailor named Pete Hozar who was 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds who took care of the trou­ble­maker drunks.

“We had to keep the guys from get­ting too drunk and go­ing up to the houses,” Con­ter said. “And we’d go up to the madams and have cof­fee with them and shoot the breeze — but al­ways stayed good be­cause we were on shore pa­trol.”

Bruner, who has stopped at Smith’s Union the past few years in con­nec­tion with Pearl Har­bor an­niver­saries, had a Long­board beer as he chat­ted with a friend at the bar.

“It’s like com­ing back home,” said Bruner, who lives in La Mi­rada, Calif. “Al­ways had good times in here.”

Also at Smith’s Union was Joe Ann Tay­lor, whose fa­ther, Joe Ge­orge, is cred­ited with saving Bruner, Strat­ton and four other sailors in one of the most dra­matic res­cues of Dec. 7, 1941. The Navy to­day will present to the fam­ily a Bronze Star with “V” de­vice for valor that was re­cently au­tho­rized for Ge­orge. The cer­e­mony will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the USS Ari­zona Me­mo­rial.

The bat­tle­ship was de­stroyed when a 1,760-pound

Ja­panese high-al­ti­tude ar­mor-pierc­ing bomb pen­e­trated its decks 40 feet from the bow, ig­nit­ing a mil­lion pounds of gunpowder for its 14-inch guns.

The ex­plo­sion blew apart the for­ward decks, sending a fire­ball 500 feet into the air. Strat­ton, Bruner and four oth­ers were in a metal box 70 feet off the water — the port side anti-air­craft “di­rec­tor” — where they were burned by the in­tense heat from be­low.

Strat­ton re­ceived burns over 65 per­cent of his body; Bruner, 73 per­cent. Sal­va­tion ap­peared in the form of

Ge­orge, a sailor and boxer on the ad­ja­cent re­pair ship USS Vestal who threw a line to the trapped men.

The or­der had been given for the Vestal to cut loose from the Ari­zona and head for open water, Strat­ton said in his book, “All the Gal­lant Men.” Be­fore Ge­orge ex­tended a life­line to the men on the Ari­zona, he had been us­ing an axe to cut the moor­ing lines.

Ge­orge and the ship’s cap­tain “were en­gaged in some kind of a de­bate, a heated one” that con­veyed to Strat­ton that “we didn’t have a chance.”

But Ge­orge stood his ground, and the six men, although badly burned, were able to climb hand over hand 45 feet above oily, burn­ing water to safety on the Vestal.

“One thing is for cer­tain: Had Joe Ge­orge not stood up for us, had he not been a rebel and re­fused to cut the line con­nect­ing the Vestal to the Ari­zona, we would have been cooked to death,” Strat­ton wrote. “If any­one de­served a Medal of Honor that day, in my opin­ion, it was him.”

The Navy said Ge­orge, who died in 1996, was com­mended

in 1942 but he never re­ceived any medal for his ac­tions. For more than a decade, Strat­ton and Bruner have lob­bied for Ge­orge to get a Navy Cross or other medal.

In July, Strat­ton, Bruner and fel­low sur­vivor Ken Potts met at the Pen­tagon with Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sec­re­tary of De­fense Jim Mat­tis.

Tay­lor, 69, said Strat­ton and Bruner have been on a quest to get her fa­ther of­fi­cially rec­og­nized. “They call this their fi­nal mis­sion,” she said.

“Folk­lore says that my fa­ther dis­obeyed an or­der be­cause he wouldn’t cut the line when the men were on it. So that’s what’s said. But there’s no record of that,” the Arkansas res­i­dent said.

Tay­lor said she is “thrilled and I’m hon­ored and I’m touched” that the fam­ily will re­ceive her fa­ther’s Bronze Star with Valor. She also says “it’s about time.”

“The im­por­tant thing is that he’s get­ting rec­og­nized,” she said. … “We’re very proud of my fa­ther.”

Had Joe Ge­orge (pic­tured be­low) not stood up for us, had he not been a rebel and re­fused to cut the line con­nect­ing the Vestal to the Ari­zona, we would have been cooked to death.” Don Strat­ton

USS Ari­zona sur­vivor de­scrib­ing the heroic ac­tion that saved his life


WWII vet­er­ans and USS Ari­zona sur­vivors Lau­ren Bruner, seated, and Lou Con­ter, raised their drinks Tues­day to cel­e­brate the an­nual gath­er­ing at Smith’s Union Bar on Ho­tel Street.


Lau­ren Bruner, a WWII vet­eran and USS Ari­zona sur­vivor, talked with Joe Ann Tay­lor, whose fa­ther Joe Ge­orge threw a line from his ship, the USS Vestal, to the burn­ing USS Ari­zona so that six sailors could climb their way to safety. Ge­orge will be pre­sented the Bronze Star with Valor posthu­mously in a cer­e­mony to­day.


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