USS Arizona survivors meet again, ring old ship's bell
Survivors of the USS Arizona took part in a reunion to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two veterans rang the Arizona's bell in honor of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who died aboard the ship on December 7, 1941. VPC
TUCSON — They drove here for the reunion that wasn’t supposed to be, two survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, two men who escaped the USS Arizona before the mighty battleship sank 74 years ago.
Lauren Bruner made the trip from La Mirada, Calif., Clare Hetrick from Las Vegas, and as names were read Sunday morning of their former crewman, eight Arizonans who didn’t make it off the ship, the two survivors pulled on a rope and rang the Arizona’s bell.
“It was even better than the first time,” said Hetrick, who rang the bell — one of two recovered from the ship — some years back, not long after it was installed in the University of Arizona’s student union building. “It was breathtaking,” he said.
Bruner had also rung the University of Arizona's bell before and rang the ship's other bell last year at Pearl Harbor, where it hangs at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
The bell-ringing, part of a Sunday memorial on the University of Arizona campus, was the emotional end to a reunion of USS Arizona survivors and family members of survivors. The survivors’ group had met every December in Tucson or Hawaii over the years but had all but decided that last year’s reunion in Honolulu would be the last.
The number of survivors from the Arizona had dwindled to just nine at the time, most of them in their 90s, and not all of whom could travel.
Then, at a banquet in Honolulu a year ago, the night before a group of four survivors toasted their fallen crew members aboard the USS Arizona Memorial, the group voted overwhelmingly to continue meeting for as long as they could.
Bruner and Hetrick were the only two of the remaining survivors to make the trip to Tucson and were the guests of honor at Sunday’s memorial. Both used wheelchairs to get around, but stood when a military guard presented the colors and shook hands with anyone who approached.
The two men were given a close-up look at recently announced plans to build a permanent memorial to the Arizona on the university campus. David Carter, the memorial's designer, showed each of them a poster-size rendition of the project.
A ribbon of concrete on the campus' central mall will outline the Arizona's deck in its true dimensions: about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide. At intervals along the ribbon, brass medallions will be recessed with the names of each of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who died aboard the ship Dec. 7, 1941.
Bruner nodded as he studied the picture and pronounced the idea sound. Like other survivors, he has worried that Americans will forget the sacrifices made as the nation entered World War II in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor ambush.
Hetrick saw the same promise: “It’s another way of remembering,” he said. “We have to remember.”
William Westcott, a Tucson financial planner who has led the planning for the campus mall memorial, talked about how the Arizona’s loss affected him: His uncle, William Westcott Jr., died aboard the ship. His father enlisted in the Navy at the age of 16, just weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“As I was getting ready this morning, I walked over to where my wife was and I hugged her,” he said. “I did that because I can. I’m here to do that. So many can’t.”
He noted that many of the students who will walk across the mall on campus will be about the same age as most of the men who died aboard the Arizona.
“It is our hope that the students will have occasion to look down and realize that on every one of those medallions is a date of death, the very same date,” Westcott said. “It is my hope when it is done that the long arms of the ship will embrace all veterans.”
The memorial’s backers have begun fundraising for the project, which will be paid for entirely with private donations.
Marine Col. Patrick Wall, commander of the campus' NROTC unit, recognized Bruner and Hetrick and recited details of their experiences in the Navy and at Pearl Harbor. Hetrick went on to serve in the Air Force, Wall said. Bruner suffered critical burns in an explosion and returned to duty.
“Their stories represent thousands of others who were there,” Wall said. “We should honor their sacrifices and never, ever forget Dec. 7, 1941.”
After the service, Bruner and Hetrick made their way to the bell tower, which faces the campus mall where the memorial would be built.
They stood on each side of a doorway and took hold of the rope together. They pulled and rang the bell eight times, once for each Arizonan who died aboard the battleship. Then, in an especially poignant moment, they rang the bell twice more for two fellow survivors who died since the last reunion, Joe Langdell and John Anderson.
Langdell, who was 100 when he died in February, will be interred in the sunken Arizona on Monday during a special ceremony after the Pearl Harbor Day remembrance. Anderson was 98 when he died last month.
Both Bruner and Hetrick plan to return to Honolulu next year for the 75th anniversary of the attack. Both want to meet the other survivors again and pay their respects to the crew members who didn’t make it out.
"That's my plan," Bruner said.
“I’m ready to go back again,” Hetrick said. “I’ll go back any way I can.”