Bob Hanson was aboard the USS Xanthus in August of 1945, ready to invade the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido when the United States Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and another three days later on Nagasaki.
The devastation that followed those bombings convinced Japanese leaders to surrender, and that was the end of World War II.
Hanson and his shipmates celebrated the end of the war aboard the Xanthus; they were relieved to know they would not be part of an invasion that would have likely lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not more, on both sides of the conflict.
Hanson, 87, a North Branch resident from 1999 to 2010, faced his share of close calls during his four years in the Navy in WWII.
He came out of the conflict physically unscathed, but the recollections he has from those years have left permanent marks in his memories.
Small ship, close crew
Hanson’s Navy tenure began in 1942 at age 17 aboard a sub chaser that was tapped with the task of patrolling for enemy submarines off the coast of Kauai, the fourth largest of the Hawaiian Islands.
Hanson was a 2nd Class Signalman aboard the ship, a role he assumed throughout his years at sea.
“I sent and received messages by Morse code from ship to ship or ship to shore,” he said. “If you’ve ever seen in movies that flashing light on top of a ship, that was me.”
Hanson’s sub chaser was small craft, with a crew of only 13 men.
He said he forged a closer bond with that small group than he did with anyone else with whom he served.
“It was actually a converted fishing vessel that used to belong to the Honolulu tuna packers,” Hanson remembered. “The Navy was so short of small vessels at the time.” The ship was outfitted with Sonar and depth charges.
On patrol about 85 miles off the coast of Kauai, Hanson said the ship received a reading on the Sonar that indicated an enemy sub might be near.
Subsequently, the crew armed and dropped two depth charges into the water, but with a top speed of 13 knots, the ship couldn’t get away from the blast zone quick enough.
“We darn near sunk ourselves,” Hanson said. “We sprang seven leaks and almost knocked the rudder off. We limped back into port.”
Hanson’s crew never found out if an enemy sub had actually been in the area.
Hanson was part of a much larger force aboard his next ship, the USS Lexington.
He served on that ship for about nine months.
The Lexington, an aircraft carrier, was involved in the battle of Leyte Gulf near the Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar.
The clash pitted United States and Australian forces against the Imperial Japanese Navy and is known as the largest sea battle of WWII.
By some criteria, it could be labeled as the largest on-water battle in history.
During combat, a Japanese pilot dive-bombed his plane directly into the Lexington.
“We suffered a kamikaze hit,” Hanson said. “It hit our superstructure, and we had to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.”
At the time of the attack, Hanson was assigned to a damage control party on the flight deck, away from the superstructure.
For the men of the Lexington and numerous others with ties to them, the three-day battle was a time filled with sadness.
“I knew some of the signalmen who were killed,” Hanson said. “It was a lot of sorrow and I guess disbelief that they got killed. I don’t much talk about that.”
Nearing the end of the war
Hanson’s last stint of service was on the aforementioned Xanthus, a repair ship.
Before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hanson said the fear surrounding an invasion of Japan was more than palpable.
“We were all concerned about the kamikazes,” he said.
When the forces came together on the water near Japan in anticipation of an invasion, Hanson was awestruck.
“When we rendezvoused with the fleet, that was the greatest site I ever saw in my life,” he said. “As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but ships in all directions.”
After the Japanese surrendered, Hanson thought he might be heading home, but there was still more work to do for the crew of the Xanthus.
Hanson and his fellow officers occupied a naval base in Hokkaido for two months and then headed to Okinawa to repair ships.
From there, they traveled to Tsingtao, China, for about two more months.
“We just occupied it to keep Mao out of there and keep the port open for Chiang Kai Shek’s outfit,” Hanson recalled. “After that, we went home, finally.”
A Navy man settles down
It didn’t take Hanson long to find a lady interested in him upon returning home to St. Paul.
“Her name was Alice,” Hanson said. “The day I got home from the Navy, I met her in a butcher shop, for God’s sake. She was visiting her sister, and I worked at that meat market before I went into the service. I just stopped for a visit with the people I used to work with and Alice’s sister still worked there.”
Hanson recalled he was in full uniform when he met Alice, and he never knew if she was attracted to him because of his armed forces background, but noted the uniform definitely didn’t hurt his chances with her.
The couple were married in 1947, a union that lasted 55 years until Alice’s death in 2002.
They had six children – three girls and three boys.
Reflecting on Veterans Day
For Hanson, the military has played an integral role in his life, and he’s still involved in paying homage to those who fought and died for this country.
He proudly wears his WWII veteran hat and attends ceremonies on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
He’s a member of the Harris Legion Post 139, and he still attends meetings of the North Branch VFW Post 6424.
Hanson is also active with both organizations in White Bear Lake, where he now lives.
For him, and undoubtedly for other veterans, Veterans Day is a special, often-solemn time.
“I appreciate everyone who honors veterans on that day,” he said.