A Memorial to My Uncle, John Hanner
by John Matthews
Born May 14, 1923
Died May 19, 2012
It doesn’t seem to say much about a person’s life. It doesn’t state what their dreams, ambitions or achievements were. In fact it doesn’t say much at all.
The real story for each of us is what happens between those two points in time. In my uncle’s case, let me assure you his life was not one of “just time spent and of taking up space,” it was eventful. Indeed, you could say without being accused of hyperbole that some of it was one harrowing experience after another. And to be sure, it was a life of service.
Over the next few minutes I hope to convey accurately with the “Lord’s help,” my uncle’s life and times.
First, what was happening in 1923?
It was the “Roaring Twenties” overall, life was easy for many in the US.
- A boom economy was a hitting a record pace and money was in many ways flowing like water.
In Germany, Adolf Hitler had already begun his rise to power.
- Burdened by reparations payments imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany is suffering hyperinflation.
- In early 1923, one American dollar is worth 7,000 German marks. By the end of 1923 it takes over 4,200,000,000,000 German marks to equal one dollar.
- A precursor to the later failure of the German Weimar Republic leaving an opening for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party), that would later take power under Adolf Hitler.
Japan is in an economic boom.
- Japan is already a naval power with which to be reckoned; in the Far East.
- The Russian fleet is destroyed by Japan between 1904 and 1905.
- Later; as a result of perceived poor civilian government, Japan’s military begins to exert power beginning in the early 1930s.
I choose to make the above noted statements concerning Germany and Japan at this point because it is the end result of what happens within these two countries over the next 17 years that shall have the profoundest impact on my uncle’s life, his family, friends, the United States as a country and untold millions around the world.
Further, the results of World War II shall have the greatest impact of how our world shall be shaped for the latter half of the 20th century.
It is into this world John was born to Ray and Louisa Hanner. Grand dad or the “Old Man” as he would later be called was a lanky, tough railroad foreman and not a person with which to be trifled. Grandma Hanner, though demure and strikingly beautiful, she was herself, tough in her own right and a dead shot with a frying pan when properly riled, as my grand dad would later find out.
John or “Juan” as he originally named was the third of what eventually would be 6 original Hanner children, Albert, Raymond Jr., John, Ernest, my mother Teresa and Henry.
With the dissolution of the family in the early thirties two more Hanners would be added – Ed and Rita Ann. On my grandmother’s side three more girls were added – Mary Louise, Lydia and Margaret.
Uncle John and grand dad would frequently find themselves “at loggerheads.” I believe the politically correct term today would be that they were frequently in disagreement. This would be putting it mildly… Yet, as my uncle grew it became evident to my grand dad of my uncle’s skills for leadership and maintaining order in the house, while he and Albert were away working. As John matured these skills would later serve him very well.
My mother would often tell us kids that she was a model youngster and that she never got into trouble or misbehaved. What a load of malarkey, as my uncle’s would later attest. As with most little sisters she could be a royal pain. And she often found to her great discomfort that Uncle John took very seriously the admonition by “the old man” to keep my mother safe.
Because of the family dissolution, Uncles Ray and John and my mother would eventually find themselves residing at my Great Aunt Josephine’s in San Bernardino. John would eventually go to work for his Uncle Carlos.
Uncle Carlos noticed John’s capabilities and it wasn’t long before he found himself in charge of his uncle’s trucks and in many cases managing his uncle’s men. At 15 or 16 years, Uncle John had become as tall and was tougher than most his uncle’s drivers. And was quite capable, if necessary, of making sure, in not to gentle a manner just who was in charge.
At about the same time and with the authorization grand dad he enlisted in the California National Guard, serving in the 185th infantry. It was later found out that he had been less than truthful about his age when joining, about two years worth. Once the commander found out, he received a quick but honorable discharge.
Uncle John was the pure embodiment of that, “never say die” attitude and never one to back down. Even with the odds stacked against him. He simply didn’t know how or when to quit.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, John enlisted in the Marine Corps, by this time just barely of legal age. Once he had completed basic training, he volunteered immediately for parachute training. Shortly thereafter, he truly became one of “The Few, The Proud,” when he completed paratroop training. Only the most physically fit were accepted, still 40% would “wash out.”
The other brothers followed suit. Shortly thereafter, Ray and Ernie would enter the Marines and later, as well, find themselves in the South Pacific Theater. Albert would go to the Army, eventually, fighting in North Africa, Sicily and up the bloody Italian boot.
John would become part of the 1st Parachute Battalion attached to the 1st Marine Division for the invasion of Guadalcanal as part of General MacArthur’s plan of “hit ’em where they ain’t.”
A side note: As General MacArthur implemented this plan, Japanese troops would learn of the fall of other garrisons around them, which exhausted them psychologically. Every day they would wait, but the American invaders never came. MacArthur deprived them of their ability to fight simply by going around them, and in the mean time saving the lives of countless Allied soldiers. After the war, Japanese Colonel Matsuichi Juio, an intelligence officer, commented that during the war the Japanese hated MacArthur’s strategy where he…
“With minimum losses; attacked and seized a relative weak area, constructed airfields and then proceeded to cut the supply lines to [Japanese] troops to that area…. [Japanese] strong points were gradually starved out…. We respected this type of strategy… because it gained the most while losing the least.”
On 7 August 1942 the unit conducted an amphibious assault on the island of Gavutu and later seized the neighboring island of Tanambogo with other Marine units. The battalion later moved back to Guadalcanal fighting alongside the 1st Marine Raiders in the Tasimboko raid and the Battle of Edson’s “Bloody” Ridge.
Guadalcanal won the Division its first of three World War II Presidential Unit Citations. The price, 650 killed in action, 1,278 wounded with a further 8,580 contracting malaria and 31 missing in action.
The division would next see action during Operation Cartwheel which was the codename for the campaigns in Eastern New Guinea and New Britain. They came ashore at the Battle of Cape Gloucester on 26 December 1943. Fighting on New Britain continued until February 1944, at such places as, Suicide Creek and Ajar Ridge. During the course of the battle the division had 310 killed and 1,083 wounded.
The next battle for the 1st Marine Division would be the bloodiest yet, the Battle of Peleliu. Some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Pacific war occurred in places such as “Bloody Nose Ridge” and the central ridges of the island that made up the Umurbrogol Pocket. The Umurbrogol Pocket was a complex of cave and ridge fortresses suitable for the Japanese to mount a fanatic suicidal defense. Once the fighting was over the 1st Marine Division had lost 1,252 dead and 5,274 wounded and had received a second Presidential Unit Citation.
The final campaign the division would take part in during World War II would be the Battle of Okinawa. Beyond the island’s strategic importance, of which, was substantial. There was one other unique property associated with Okinawa. The Japanese considered this island as one of their home islands and was to be held at all costs.
The division landed on 1 April 1945 though fighting was not initially heavy, it rapidly became so and would remain so, until 21 June 1945, when the island was declared secure. The 1st Marine Division along with the 6th Marine Division and the Army’s 24th Corps slugged it out with the Japanese 32nd Army at such places as Dakeshi Ridge, Wana Ridge, “Sugarloaf Hill” and Shuri Castle.
Fighting on Okinawa cost the division 1,655 killed in action. The 1st Marine Division received its third Presidential Unit Citation.
In recalling portions of some these battles, Uncle John relayed to me certain memories that stood out in his mind. In many ways it is these single instances of facing life and death decisions that define a person and one’s life comes into sharp relief. For my uncle this was one of those defining moments.
Though, I don’t remember the island name or battle, my uncle on a number of occasions related the following:
It had been a particularly brutal day; their portion of the line had been hit multiple times by Japanese charges en-mass, better known as “Banzai Charges” or “Human Wave Attacks,” though, the line held, for the moment.
They had lost most of their command structure. And their local commanding officer had suffered for lack of a better term a nervous breakdown and was forcibly relieved by his own lieutenant. The lieutenant put Uncle John in charge of that portion of the line and gave quick orders as to what to do during the night, which was rapidly approaching.
Without ever being in command previously, he took over. Knowing the Japanese would be attempting to infiltrate the lines. He quickly re-aligned his men and made sure they stayed on the line. He also, knew that some of his charges were ready to cut and run. In some ways he didn’t blame them, they had suffered horrible losses during the day. But, the line had to be held or they would all be dead before the night was over and the Japanese would have a much needed breach in order to stage counter attacks. He reminded his men in no uncertain terms of what he would do if they attempted to run.
Through the night they all listened intently, firing and tossing hand grenades at the minutest sound. As well, when called upon, as directed by what was left of the command center he would send out mortar shells, all night long.
As the morning dawned, most on the guys on the line couldn’t believe they had made it through the night. As they went out to inspect the line they found the bodies of Japanese soldiers strewn everywhere, many as near as 20 to 30 yards away. Certain death had been knocking at the door.
After the dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered unconditionally. The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed on 2 September 1945, on the battleship USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay.
However, the work of the 1st Marine Division was far from over. Following the surrender of Japan, the division was sent to Northern China as the lead combat element of the III Amphibious Corps. Their primary mission was the repatriating of more than 650,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians still resident in that part of China.
Far from an easy assignment the Marines were now tasked with keeping safe, thousands of Japanese, many of whom contributed to the carnage in China prior to and after the United States had entered the war. Both the Communists under Mao Zedong and the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, wanted badly, a piece of their former enemies. The “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese and other atrocities visited upon the Chinese were still fresh in their minds, no matter their political leanings.
As well, many within the US ranks were not all happy about protecting their former enemies in light of atrocities on US service personnel. For US soldiers the “Bataan Death March,” the use of captured US soldiers as slaves only later to be murdered and other atrocities committed against civilian populations were especially egregious.
If I may digress for a moment, I often wondered why we couldn’t get Uncle Ernie to go to any funerals. His general response was that he had already been to too many. What I didn’t understand until the last few years was what he had been really talking about. I learned that while conducting “mopping up” operations in the Philippines, Okinawa and multiple other islands formerly held by the Japanese, he and others, had to literally bury thousands of heads and headless corpses in mass graves as a result Japanese atrocities. And like so much cord wood, he had to stack up the bodies of American soldiers killed in combat and make them ready for burial. Indeed, Uncle Ernie had seen too many funerals.
Though, the Japanese were vanquished, Uncle John now saw it as his duty to make sure as far as possible, that all Japanese under his watch were repatriated to Japan safely. Sometimes this meant facing down the Communists, sometimes it was holding back the Nationalists. As well, this meant having to watch his own comrades to make sure payback was not committed. His strong sense of honor would not allow the miss-treatment of prisoners under his watch, even though; some were guilty of the most heinous of crimes.
Added to the mix; a Chinese civil war was raging between the Nationalists and the Communists. As it became increasingly apparent that a complete collapse of truce negotiations among the Chinese factions were happening, plans were laid for the withdrawal of all Marine units from China. The last elements of the division finally left China on 1 September 1947.
After sleeping for what he felt was the better part of month at a military hospital due to extreme exhaustion. Uncle John for a second time would receive an “Honorable Discharge,” completing his duties with the Marines and returning home, to San Bernardino.
A side note:
51,983 – Americans died in all Pacific Actions in WWII
1,140,429 – Members of the Japanese military died during WWII
700,000 to 10,000,000 (variously estimated) – Japanese civilians died in WWII
You might think that after enduring such horrendous circumstances that would be enough for any man. Yet, Uncle John was not just any man and he was not done serving his country.
After several months at home, he decided to return to the military and signed up with the Army. Shortly he was on his way to Japan as part of the US occupation forces.
By this time the “Cold War” had begun to heat up. The Soviet Union was fulminating civil unrest within Japan. In addition, US intelligence picked up on the Soviet intent to possibly invade some the American occupied Japanese Northern islands.
MacArthur acted quickly; Uncle John and others were dispatched to the Northern islands. Their orders, secure the Northern islands and provide 24/7 reconnaissance and monitor Soviet activity. For the next several months they did, until the Soviet threat had diminished.
He would later take up training duties. And more often than not his superiors would hear about how he was too hard on his men. That he didn’t care about them. In point of fact he was attempting to toughen them; relatively recent history had proven that only those who were properly prepared stood a chance in returning from combat. Though, many were allowed to transfer out of his training platoons, more, later regarding this.
Uncle John himself left the training command to become part of General Mac Arthur’s Honor Guard in early 1950.
Though, soon, very soon, a new crisis would erupt.
On Sunday, June 25, 1950 proceeded by a long and intensive barrage of artillery, 90,000 Russian-armed North Korean (NK) troops, smashed headlong into totally unprepared units of the army of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Within two days, Seoul, the capitol of South Korea was abandoned to the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the North Korean Communists.
US and UN divisions already in South Korea were fighting valiantly, but, were being rolled up by better prepared, veteran, resolute and ferocious North Korean armies. Soon most of what was left of UN and US forces found themselves; in what would be called the Pusan Perimeter. Though holding out, they were in very serious trouble.
Immediately, Uncle John volunteered for duty in Korea.
In the mean time, General MacArthur had conceived a brilliant and audacious plan; he would land US Marines at Inchon. Inchon was one of the most inhospitable places in the world to conduct an amphibious landing. Inchon’s natural and artificial defenses were formidable. However, if a landing could be affected it would release pressure on the Pusan Perimeter saving thousands of US and UN lives. And make it easier for the US and the UN to re-take Seoul. “Operation Chromite” was on, and with it, Uncle John, 75,000 troops and 261 naval vessels.
“Operation Chromite” had been nothing short of a stunning strategic defeat for North Korea. Within two weeks, US, and UN forces were once again entering Seoul. Pressure almost immediately relieved on the Pusan Perimeter and put the North Korean army into headlong retreat back toward the North.
Not too long afterword Uncle John would find himself once again as part of General MacArthur’s honor guard. He would serve MacArthur until the General was recalled by President Truman. In turn, he would serve Mathew “Bunker” Ridgeway and Mark Clark as part of their Honor Guard until the end of the Korean War. He would be one of the few people to directly serve all three United Nations Commanders.
At about this time a few transferees from his original training platoons (those that hadn’t been killed), returned to Japan from taking part in Korean operations. These were soldiers who had originally thought my uncle had been too tough on them. Each was obliged to state that they should have stayed and not left. Those who had completed his training more often than not came back alive those who didn’t more often than not, didn’t.
When Korean hostilities ceased, Uncle John went to Ft Meade, Maryland as a training instructor and later to Alaska as an Arctic survival instructor. Then he would go to El Paso Texas to supervise Infantry training.
By 1956 he was ready for something else and entered Nike missile training. By 1958, he was putting together Nike Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) missile sites in Europe.
Prior to this time my uncle never really claimed to be particularly religious. However, in 1959 or thereabouts, with some friends he went to a Billy Graham Crusade in Germany. He would never be the same.
Billy Graham quoted Numbers 32:23, “But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out.”
Uncle John stated, it was like a knife cutting into his heart, he had been convicted. From that day forward he was a committed Christian.
Under a medical discharge, he retired from active military service in 1960. He received his final and third “Honorable Discharge” in 1965.
In 1962, with the Lord’s help he went “cold turkey” from being a 2 almost a 3 pack a day smoker and never looked back. He stated; the Lord showed him in a dream of what was happening to his body and lungs. That was enough for him.
He and my Uncle Ray joined the Del Rosa Methodist Church and ushered our family as well into the church and baptism. He would later study with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually he found a home with the New Life Fellowship Church, now called the Kings Gate Community Church. For the next 27 years he would faithfully and humbly serve the church and its people.
As a further testament to the person he was, I’ll take this moment to relate a personal experience. I asked him with all his military service, why he wouldn’t be buried in the National Cemetery by March AFB, after all, it was his right and his due. No Johnny, he stated, that place is for the true heroes. After all he had seen and done, after all the service he had performed for his country he had never considered himself to be a hero.
It literally sent shivers through me that such men still existed.
David the great king of ancient Israel was a warrior’s, worrier. And though he sinned greatly, yet, he was a man after God’s own heart. I believe thoroughly, my uncle, as well, was a man after God’s own heart.
It has been my great honor and pleasure to speak for my uncle today.
May God bless you and yours and may he continue to bless this great country for which so many have given “The Last Full Measure of Devotion.”