USS Arizona Vet Who Narrowly Escaped is Still Haunted by Pearl Harbor Attack
Pearl Harbor survivor remembers the attack, 75 years later.
Survivor Lauren Bruner.
Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Navy
For Lauren Fay Bruner, 96, “I was in World War II from day one to the final second.”
Seventy-five years ago, Bruner was a 21-year-old fire controlman third class aboard the USS Arizona when the Japanese attacked at 7:55 a.m. He and his crew mates scrambled up to the crow’s nest aft of Turret No. 2 and began shooting back. Around 8:10 a.m., the battleship took a direct hit from a 1,760-pound bomb.
The impact was so tremendous that 100 feet of the ship’s bow was blown away; the concussion so thunderous it shook the harbor and could be felt across much of the island. Of the 1,511 crewmen aboard, 1,177 perished in the explosion and resulting fires.
Bruner was one of 334 immediate survivors. But he had suffered severe burns to more than 70 percent of his body, taken two enemy machine-gun bullets to his left leg and was now completely deaf. Worst of all, there was no means of escaping the raging inferno.
“We were trapped,” remembers Bruner. “Everything was afire below.”
Then the repair ship Vestal—itself bombed and slowly sinking—tied up next to what was left of the Arizona and someone heaved a line across to Bruner and five others. The six men secured the line and made it to the Vestal, hand over hand, dangling barely above the rising flames. Bruner later described that painful moment as, “like being roasted.”
The USS Arizona on fire.
Photo: WWII Valor in the Pacific
Bruner was the next-to-the-last man to leave the Arizona. Bruner was hospitalized for months and underwent numerous painful skin treatments. Ear surgery began to restore his hearing. Before he fully recovered, he was asked to return to the war, earlier than planned.
“After seven months—I was supposed to have had eight—they asked me to volunteer to go back and do some training, because they had lost so many of the good people who knew what to do. So, I said, ‘OK, but I’ve got all these bandages.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’”
He fought until the end of the war and then some—totaling eight years and three months in the Navy. Afterward, he returned to civilian life and tried to forget. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he went into a comparatively staid business: refrigeration.
These days, Bruner, who lives in La Mirada, California, rarely misses any chance to be part of a Pearl Harbor commemoration event. But it took nearly a half century for him to revisit Pearl Harbor after the war. And, when he did, he was apprehensive.
He returned because he had received an official invitation to be part of the military’s 50th Pearl Harbor attack anniversary in 1991. There, he met with President George H.W. Bush, himself a World War II hero. Bruner says that moment was one of the highlights of his life. He also found it rewarding to run into old Navy buddies he hadn’t seen in decades, and to renew friendships.
But Bruner also admits to a sense of dread. “I just hope the nightmares don’t start again,” he said before leaving Honolulu after the 1991 events.
And start again the nightmares did. And they never completely went away.
“Once in a while, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night,” he recently said. “I haven’t figured out a way to conquer it.”
But one way to deal with it, he found to his surprise, has been to return to the scene and bear witness. These days, he looks forward to visiting Pearl Harbor and meeting up with old buddies and new friends. He has done so several times. The last time, he and some of his fellow survivors visited Bruner’s favorite watering hole, Smith’s Union Bar. He hopes they do it again for the 75th anniversary.
Remembering Pearl Harbor reminds us, “It is important to be vigilant at all times,” says Bruner.
Over time, that history has also reminded him of the importance of not being hardened by anger, but accepting and moving forward. With author Ed McGrath, Bruner has put his experiences into a book: Second to the Last to Leave.
Lately, Bruner has expanded on the need for celebrating reconciliation with Japan. Next spring, he and McGrath will travel to Hiroshima on a trip of peace and good will. Bruner plans to hand out thousands of red-white-and-blue folded paper cranes at the Peace Memorial Museum.
“It will be a gesture of our continued peace and friendship,” he says. “It’s important to remember that, too.”
To find out about many activities linked to the historic anniversary, go online at pearlharbor75thanniversary.com.