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At 100, a Veteran of Pearl Harbor Looks Back

| November 11, 2013
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The USS Phoenix steams past battleships burning after attack on Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The USS Phoenix steams past battleships burning after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Frank Hanley was in his early 20s when he enlisted in the Navy in 1937. He figured he could get trained as an electrician. Instead, he was assigned to be a gunner’s mate. That’s the job he had aboard the cruiser USS Phoenix on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Hanley is long since retired and lives in Cupertino. He’s going to turn 100 years next Sunday, and Congressman Mike Honda and Veterans Administration officials are planning to recognize his long service — he wound up staying in the Navy for 22 years — and congratulate him on his milestone birthday.

Hanley doesn’t get out a lot anymore, from what we’re told, but there’s nothing wrong with his memory. Here’s what he recalls about one of the darkest moments in U.S. history and what came after:

The Phoenix was moored offshore the morning of Dec. 7, across from Ford Island, where the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma and other battleships were docked. As gunner’s mate, Hanley was in charge of the Phoenix’s eight, 5-inch anti-aircraft guns.

Frank Hanley early in his U.S. Navy service.

Frank Hanley early in his U.S. Navy service.

It was a Sunday, and after breakfast, Hanley took a little walk around the main deck. “Such a nice morning,” he recalls. He was planning to go to church services on the battleship California. He went below to change.

“As I reached my locker, they passed the word ‘set condition affirm’ — close all water-tight doors. A drill, on Sunday? Never heard of it?!” He ran for his battle station, called “sky forward,” above the ship’s bridge. As he came up on the main deck, he saw the cooks from the galley cutting the awnings down so that the anti-aircraft guns could fire freely. From sky forward, he could see smoke coming from across Ford Island. There was an ammunition depot there. He thought it must have caught fire. Then a plane passed over, and he could see the Rising Sun insignia on the wingtips, and he knew they were under attack by Japanese planes. He says he kept thinking, “How’d they get here?” over and over.

The Japanese pilots seemed to stay away from the Phoenix, which had opened fire shortly after the first attacking planes were spotted.

“They were going after the battleships,” Hanley says. “The Arizona was at one end of battleship row, the California was at the other end. The Oklahoma was behind the Arizona, and it rolled over” after being torpedoed repeatedly by Japanese planes. The Arizona was struck by several bombs and blew up. When the attack was over, more than 2,300 sailors, soldiers and Marines had been killed — more than 1,600 on the Arizona and Oklahoma. The Phoenix was untouched.

“They wanted to get the ship out of the harbor,” Hanley remembers. “They made an attempt to go around Ford Island in the center (channel). It was blocked by an old battleship, the Utah. It had been hit, and sunk in the channel. They tried the main channel, which was blocked by the Nevada. The Nevada had been hit and was taking on too much water. They ran themselves on the side of the channel, aground.” Eventually, the Phoenix got out of the harbor, accompanied by several destroyers. They were assigned to a task force to go out and find the Japanese fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor, but found nothing.

Later, the Phoenix helped convoy the wounded and military dependents back to San Francisco, then brought medical supplies back to Hawaii. In early 1942, the ship was sent to the Australian port of Melbourne. “They were happy to see the Americans down there because the Japanese were bombing towns in northern Australia. All the parks had trenches dug in them,” Hanley says, in case of an invasion. The city was blacked out at night.

A plane passed over with the Rising Sun insignia on the wing-tips. Hanley kept thinking, “How did they get here?”

In 1943, Hanley was transferred from the Phoenix (after the war, the United States sold the ship to Argentina, which rechristened it the General Belgrano; a British submarine sank the ship during the 1982 Falklands War, killing more than 300 Argentine sailors). Hanley’s next assignment was a new cruiser, the USS Reno. He says he saw more action on his new ship with a captain who was anxious to prove himself and who seemed to volunteer for any dangerous mission.

Frank Hanley, a veteran of the Navy who fought at Pearl Harbor, on his 99th birthday.

Frank Hanley, a veteran of the Navy who fought at Pearl Harbor, on his 99th birthday.

The Reno’s main job was to protect aircraft carriers as U.S. forces moved into the eastern Pacific in 1944. In late October, operating east of the Philippines, the Reno was near the carrier USS Princeton when a single enemy bomb triggered a fire that swept through the ship. The Reno and several other ships, including the cruiser USS Birmingham, were ordered to help fight the fire aboard the larger ship. A short time later, the Reno was ordered to pull away to get ready to fight incoming enemy planes. That done, they started back to aid the Princeton when a tremendous explosion blew off the Princeton’s stern. The Birmingham, along the carrier’s port side, suffered heavy casualties and damage. With the Princeton beyond saving, the Reno was ordered to sink it. Hanley remembers the job took four torpedoes and made a tremendous explosion.

The Reno, too, eventually suffered heavy damage, and Hanley served out the war on yet another ship. He served until 1959, including a stint at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. He later went to work for the U.S. Postal service, from which he retired. Today, he lives in an independent retirement residence in Cupertino. He still fixes his own lunch every day. He says his eyesight isn’t so good — in fact, he’s legally blind. His main form of recreation, he says, is listening to audio books, especially volumes of biography and history.

We doubt that any of the stories he comes across are any more interesting than those he tells himself about those long-ago days in the service.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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