Survivor with local ties featured in USS Arizona documentary

A new film features Lauren Fay Bruner, a 1938 graduate of Elma High School

Contributing writerJuly 3, 2013 

  • THE FILM

    The documentary film “Second to the Last to Leave” tells the story of how Lauren F. Bruner narrowly escaped with his life when the USS Arizona was attacked Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.

    Bruner, a Navy fire controlman 3rd Class, was the fifth of six crewmen to escape the blazing battle station aboard the Arizona. Bruner, 21, suffered burns over more than 70 percent of his body.

    Seven months later, he was back in action on another ship.

    The documentary was filmed from June 4-6 when Bruner returned to Pearl Harbor. Producer Ed McGrath of the Los Angeles area said he hopes to complete the film by Dec. 7. A copy will be given to the National Parks Service, which oversees the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

    McGrath’s family business, M.MAC, provided funding to begin the project, but about $25,000 is still needed for preproduction, editing and more, he said. People who want to support the effort can get more information online at secondtothelasttoleave.com.

    Bruner can be emailed at laurenbruner12741@gmail.com. A response from him will be updated monthly, McGrath said. Bruner can also be “friended” on the Facebook page “Second to the Last to Leave.”

    Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin

As a young man, Lauren Fay Bruner was involved firsthand in history.

Now, at 92, he still is.

Bruner, who grew up mostly around Olympia and who now lives in Southern California, is one of 11 living survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona during the 1941 Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.

A total of 1,177 on the ship died that day; 334 lived.

In June, he returned to Hawaii as the subject of a new documentary. But for Bruner there turned out to be even more to the story.

In April, the documentary’s producer requested information from Elma High School about Bruner, a 1938 graduate. A library worker told him to talk with Bill Wickwire, a lifelong East Grays Harbor resident. Wickwire, long active with veterans and their families, is the commander of Elma’s Bill Mann Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1948.

The 63-year-old Wickwire also is the nephew and namesake of Mann, another 1938 Elma High graduate and one of those who died on the Arizona. The 21-year-old gunner’s mate 3rd class had been at his battle station, the powder magazines, on the ship’s lowest deck.

A front-page story in the Elma Chronicle on Christmas Day 1941 noted the two shipmates: “William Mann, local boy, listed missing,” stated the headline. “Lauren Fay Bruner of McCleary is wounded at Hawaii,” the paper added, noting that Mann and Bruner, who’d transferred from Olympia High School as a junior, had been on Elma High School’s track team.

More than seven decades later, Wickwire, a Navy veteran himself, learned of the connection and joined Bruner for the documentary’s filming from June 4-6. When completed, a copy of the film will be given to the National Parks Service, which oversees the Arizona Memorial, to share with visitors.

In Bruner, a widower with no children, Wickwire said later, he’d found a “new uncle.”

He and Bruner together placed a wreath in honor of Bill Mann at the USS Arizona Memorial, helping breach a huge gap Wickwire had long felt by never having known Mann.

“I feel deprived sometimes ’cause I never got to know him,” Wickwire said in a 2006 newspaper story on the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I never got to sit at his knee and talk.”

Wickwire was close to his grandmother, Charlotte Mann, his uncle’s “Gold Star Mother” who died in 1997. Gold Star Mothers had children who died in the line of duty in the armed forces.

Until he enlisted in 1971, Wickwire said, he hadn’t heard much about his uncle. But when he went to say goodbye to his grandma, she began crying, “afraid something was going to happen to me,” Wickwire said.

They talked for hours, and Wickwire learned much about his uncle for the first time.

Later, when Wickwire was stationed at Hawaii’s Barbers Point Naval Air Station, the VFW paid for his grandmother’s way there. Granted liberty to escort her, Wickwire stood by his grandmother’s side at the Arizona memorial, Mann shedding more tears for her boy, who’d brought smiles to all who knew him.

PRESERVING HISTORY

Connecting with Bruner has brought Wickwire a measure of peace about how Mann died.

Bruner, a fire controlman 3rd class, was the second to last man to leave his blazing battle station above the bridge. Several decks lower, an explosion destroyed the powder room where Mann was stationed.

Learning “Uncle Bill’s battle station was at the door of the powder room” helped, Wickwire said. “All of these years, I was afraid that he had drowned in that compartment. So I was relieved that it went quick, never knew what hit him. God took him.”

Bruner said he and Mann were best friends in school. But having enlisted separately, they didn’t know at first that they were on the same ship.

He had to “catch” the dry-docked Arizona in Bremerton, Bruner said. Later, in Long Beach, Calif., “somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, remember me?’” Bruner recalled. “I turned around, and it was Billy. I didn’t even know he was coming into the service. My jaw just dropped open.”

They had a lot of leave in Long Beach, Bruner said.

“We used to go out together, double-dating … lots of girls out there in Long Beach,” he laughed.

“We would often times find two girls together. Billy would take one; I’d take the other,” Bruner said. “We would talk it over after we would get back to the ship; maybe Billy didn’t like his date, and we would switch the next liberty day.”

When the ship headed to Honolulu, Bruner was sent to fire control school in Vallejo, Calif., and Mann went with the ship. Three months later, Bruner followed.

‘A DATE THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY’

On Dec. 7, 1941, the sun shone in the clear Hawaiian sky just before 8 a.m. Some sailors still slept. Others, including Bruner and Mann, were preparing for chapel. Then two waves of hundreds of Japanese war planes darkened the sky.

When the Arizona’s alarm sounded, the crew scrambled to their battle stations, Bruner’s “about 87 feet above the deck … but we could make it in less than a minute and a half.”

The enemy planes had “already started dropping the bombs,” Bruner said. About 8:10 a.m., “a high-density, armor-piercing bomb … went right through the three decks and exploded directly in the ammunition magazine where Billy was stationed.

“That’s when the ship blew up, and everything blew sky high,” he said. “And a million pounds of black powder just blew the whole bow of the ship right off.”

In the resulting inferno, “we were trapped up there,” Bruner said.

A repair ship, the Vestal, was moored nearby, “and we got a line thrown over,” he said. Tying off the ropes, six men “got across the line hand over hand.”

Bruner and boatswain’s mate 2nd class Alvin Dvorak, who followed him, were burned over more than 70 percent of their bodies. They were taken to the nearby USS Solace hospital ship. The other four less seriously injured were taken to a base hospital.

Bruner, both hands “charred right up to the elbow,” was transferred to a base hospital, then to the naval hospital in San Francisco. Dvorak died on Christmas Eve, 17 days after the attack.

Seven months later, Bruner was back on duty, aboard the USS Coghlan, a new destroyer.

“I am awed at this man because he went right back in the thick of the fighting, and he served the rest of the war on the ship,” said Ed McGrath, who is producing the film about the Arizona attack.

Bruner and the Coghlan participated in “eight of the greatest naval battles of the war,” said McGrath, who met Bruner last summer while researching the Pearl Harbor attack and soon began considering the documentary on his experiences.

‘WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH ...’

More than war has shaped Bruner’s character.

His father died when Bruner was 9. In 1945, while the war still raged, his mother and stepfather were killed. They were hit by a car while walking from home with their 7-year-old daughter, Mary, to “a meeting of the Lauren Club No. 438 Navy Mothers of America.” The club was named for Bruner, The Elma Chronicle reported.

Uninjured, Mary was raised by a sister, Bruner said. A brother, Chet, grew up in Sumner. Another brother, Clarence, 27, died in a truck collision in 1946.

Hard times don’t make Bruner back off. Still determined to serve, he willingly relived the memories of that day aboard the Arizona so others might not forget what it takes to safeguard America’s freedom.

He’s also arranged with the National Park Service, which oversees the Arizona Memorial, to be laid to rest with his shipmates when his time comes.

He’s attended past commemorations of the attack, calling them “solemn occasions” that filled him with thoughts “about all the shipmates that you lost there.” But the visit in June “wasn’t quite as bad,” he said. Partly, “the fact that Billy’s nephew was with me made it easier.”

“It was a great honor for me,” he said. “I’d never had such honors before.”

He felt especially honored, Bruner said, when Rear Admiral Frank Bonds, the current commander of the Pacific Fleet, “gave me a star off of his uniform.”

Bruner also visited with a Japanese admiral at the foot of a gangplank from one of three ships under his command. They’d been scheduled to leave earlier, “but they found out I was going to be there, so they postponed their (departure),” Bruner said.

They shook hands, and Bruner gave the admiral a Navy cap. He also told him he “had no qualms” about the men who’d dropped the bombs.

“They were given a job,” Bruner told him. “And we were given a job, to retaliate.”

At sunrise June 6, Bruner was honored by the Navy and the Park Service at the memorial. Another memorable time for him was signing his autograph at the USS Arizona Memorial Museum.

“We were there for an hour and a half,” he said, with “never less than 15 people standing in line for the autograph,” some wanting their pictures taken with him.

Bruner’s determined to be the longest-living Arizona survivor, “the last man standing.” He had a medical checkup June 19.

The doctor gave him a good report.

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