Memories roaring back for WW II pilot
Navy dive bomber featured in new book
TRAVIS GRIGGS • TGRIGGS@PNJ.COM • DECEMBER 18, 2008
Dozens of black-and-white photographs hang on a wall in Gene Hanson's home. They're visions from the past: World War II aircraft carriers and Navy bombers with young sailors perched on the wings.
Until recently, those photos and the 91-year-old's memory were all that was left to tell the story of a 25-year-old torpedo bomber pilot fighting in a war a lifetime ago.
But now those stories can reach far beyond the walls of Hanson's north Pensacola home.
A new book, "A Dawn Like Thunder," tells the story of Hanson and other members of his World War II unit, Torpedo Squadron Eight, who fought together at the beginning of the war.
The unit suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Midway and the months-long siege at Guadalcanal, but they kept fighting until their very last plane was shot from the sky.
"I don't mind saying it was a really tough experience," Hanson said.
The author, Robert Mrazek, a former U.S. representative from New York, interviewed Hanson several times while researching the book.
Mrazek said his goal was to look deeper than battle strategies and outcomes and delve into the backgrounds and personalities of the men who fought a generation ago.
"I always wondered who were these men and why did they do what they did? What was the impact of it, and what was the cost on their families?" Mrazek said.
After receiving a copy of the book, Hanson said that those personal details make all the difference.
"I think it's fantastic. It really restores my memory of those days," Hanson said. "It reminds me of all the close calls we had."
Brings back memories
It was more than 60 years ago. Hanson was 25 when he joined the Navy and became a torpedo dive bomber pilot flying Grumman TBF Avengers over the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the years that have passed, Hanson still remembers the grim reality of war.
Sitting at his kitchen table, he told stories about heavy losses; about squadron mates who flew away never to return; about being shot down over the Pacific and swimming away from his wrecked plane, only to realize that it sank with a man still inside.
"It's all in that book," Hanson said, pausing briefly before launching into another story.
"I didn't feel like I'd make it back alive," Hanson said. "After the battle of Midway, I was pretty convinced I wouldn't make it back to the States."
Hanson did make it back, but not before earning two Navy Crosses and three Air Medals for his bravery in combat.
He stayed in the Navy and retired as a captain in 1966. In his final days in the service, he worked with Adm. John S. McCain Jr., the father of the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.
In 1978, he moved to Pensacola. And today, he has a book to add to the wall of pictures, medals and memories from his time in the Navy.
"I thought it was a great project," Hanson said. "I knew it would be a good story, and I believe that this will go down as one of the classics of World War II."
Mrazek said that one common trait he discovered while interviewing World War II veterans for the book, Hanson included, was that they did incredible things in service of their country but never felt like they did anything extraordinary .
"They just feel like they did their job," Mrazek said. "If you talk to Gene, you'll see, he's so self-deprecating. "» Sometimes I just wanted to say, 'You are my hero, Gene.' "
Gene Hanson, 91, stands near photos and memorabilia from his days in the Navy. Hanson's military service in World War II has been featured in the book "A Dawn Like Thunder," by former U.S. Rep. Robert Mrazek of New York. (Travis Griggsfirstname.lastname@example.org)