WWII Veterans Accomplish Final Mission

By William Cole

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. Photo: BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@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.”

This story was originally published as WWII veterans accomplish final mission by William Cole on www.StarAdvertiser.com on December 7, 2017.

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