Far off though he was, the young sailor witnessed the ebb and flow of monumental, bloody battles, as American amphibious forces landed on enemy-occupied islands in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Saw a gravely wounded Pearl Harbor stagger to its feet in the aftermath of Imperial Japan’s surprise attack. Walked the blasted streets of Nagasaki, flattened only months before by an atomic bomb.
In his swift, eventful, unforgettable five years aboard a U.S. Navy battleship, Don Hanson saw many things.
And as he reflects this holiday weekend on his military career, and on the many friends who never came back, the Kent man, a member of Auburn VFW Post 1741, knows he has a lot to be thankful for.
Fit, sharp and active at 91, Hanson often returns in his mind to his days as a gunner’s mate in charge of a rapid-firing gun turret aboard the USS Idaho. The “Big Spud,” a sturdy and resilient battleship, which primarily supported the fighting ashore with bombardments and antiaircraft fire, earned seven Battle Stars in its prime, he says with pride.
“You heard of all the stories about the guys who were lost there. We saw this,” Hanson said from his East Hill home, where he has lived since 1968. “We were like spectators while guys were dying.
“I’m not a hero,” he quickly added. “The guys who are heroes — and you will hear me say this again and again — are the guys who never came back.”
Guys like “Thompson, from Iowa,” one of Hanson’s gun loaders, killed during a Japanese attack.
Repeatedly put in harm’s way, the battleship and its crew sailed on to complete bombardment missions, to protect reserve convoys and precious transport areas and to provide all-important fire support for advancing Marines.
Hanson and the USS Idaho sailed many seas. Among its many missions, the battleship played vital support roles in the campaigns for the Aleutian, Marshall and Gilbert islands.
A few months after Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces in Tokyo Harbor, ending World War II, Hanson was among a group of sailors who visited Nagasaki on shore leave. With the exception of a few reinforced concrete structures still standing, they saw a city that had been reduced to rubble in a split second, walked the killing floor of an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 human beings.
The sheer scope of devastation stunned the 22-year-old sailor.
“I didn’t know what feelings to have,” Hanson said of that moment. “Still don’t.”
Hanson would continue his duty overseas until early 1946, when a loading drill accident seriously injured him. Doctors told Hanson he was lucky to have survived the trauma of a severe compound skull fracture, an injury that continued to affect him for many years after the war. Today, he struggles with double vision.
Medically discharged from the Navy, Hanson returned to his native Minnesota to farm. He went back to college, and in 1950 earned a degree in agriculture from the University of North Dakota.
Skilled with his hands, Hanson farmed for about 10 years to help his parents and large family. When the farm eventually sold, he went to work for a telephone company before a brother living in the Puget Sound Region persuaded him to come west and work with the airlines. He did, securing a job with United Airlines that lasted 20 years, loading freight and taking on other tasks.
He and his first wife raised two sons.
Today, with the help of a caretaker, Hanson lives to help others, notably the homeless, veterans and youth in his community. He is active with the VFW, various veterans organizations, his church and his extended family.
This month, he joined his three younger brothers for a reunion in Minnesota. He joins his other family, those he served with during the war, at frequent veterans reunions throughout the country. He participates in Auburn’s Veterans Day Parade and other events.
“When I look back on it now … everything I’ve done … I am satisfied with what I’ve done with my life,” Hanson said.
Today, the sailor of the past treasures his connection to the sailors of the present.
Hanson and 31 other veterans recently took a trip to Washington, D.C. – through the Puget Sound Honor Flight – to visit World War II memorials and other landmarks. While there, Hanson met a young sailor. And in a moment captured in a powerful photo, they embraced.
“After we saw the picture, we really thought it was important if we could find out who this young sailor was. We could get him a picture from Don with a note to say how much that meant to Don,” said Denise Rouleau with the Puget Sound Honor Flight, whose mission is to send surviving World War II vets in Western Washington on a trip to the nation’s capital.
Through the power of social media, the young man was soon identified.
“It was such an honor to be able to meet the veterans in attendance that day,” wrote the young sailor, Christian Suliguin. “As I was standing in line to greet everyone in attendance, Mr. Hanson immediately hugged me. What an incredible feeling to be able to meet a fellow shipmate. The stories and advice that everyone shared only inspired me even more to further serve our country.”
Today, Hanson corresponds with Suliguin by letter.
Hanson encourages youth to commit, serve and honor their country and community.
His advice to today’s youth is simple, direct.
“Have a goal in mind, stick to it, don’t let anybody divert you from it,” Hanson said. “You may fail, but pick it up and start again. Just keep trying … that’s what I did.
“You could say, I’ve been there.”
PHOTO BELOW: Navy veteran Don Hanson, 91, of Kent, stops to talk to Haakon Aegerter, 6, as he walks down Main Street at Auburn’s 48th annual Veterans Day Parade and Observance last year. Rachel Ciampi, Reporter