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Pearl Harbor survivor plans peace mission to Japan

Lauren Bruner, USS Arizona survivor, visits the USS Arizona Memorial during the 73rd Anniversary Pearl Harbor Day commemoration ceremony at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center on Dec. 7, 2014.

LAURIE DEXTER/U.S. NAVY

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: August 2, 2016

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Lauren Bruner was at Pearl Harbor at the start of America’s war in the Pacific on Dec. 7, 1941, and in the third week in October, he’ll be in Japan where it ended, in a gesture of peace and reconciliation.

The 95-year-old USS Arizona survivor, one of just six crew members from the doomed battleship still living, plans to give out thousands of red-white-and-blue folded paper cranes when he visits with Japanese people at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum.

Bruner is believed to be the first Pearl Harbor survivor to make such a goodwill trip to the city devastated by a U.S. atom bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, 71 years ago this month.

Bruner received the support of his friend Masahiro Sasaki, whose sister, Sadako, got sick after the bomb fell and folded more than 1,000 paper cranes hoping to get better, and whose story became an international symbol of hope and peace.

“This man (Bruner) has a huge heart, so he’s taking this opportunity this late in his life to go and meet Japanese people, having nothing to do with politics, having nothing to do with war, just as more of a cultural exchange to say, ‘How are you?’” said Bruner’s friend Ed McGrath, who will accompany him on the trip.

Bruner, a La Mirada, Calif., resident with wispy gray hair who fondly recalls Honolulu before all hell broke loose on Dec. 7, 1941, is characteristically to the point when talking about his goals for what amounts to an ongoing reconciliation.

“Somebody has to start it,” he said by phone, adding, “It’s a very good time to give attention to it.”

The Lauren F. Bruner USS Arizona Memorial Foundation, co-founded by Bruner and McGrath, will be asking Hawaii schoolchildren to fold about 3,000 paper cranes that Bruner will give out in Japan.

On Dec. 7, Bruner, then 21, and other men were in a fire control crow’s nest on the Arizona when a Japanese plane’s 1,760-pound bomb penetrated the forward deck, igniting powder magazines and fuel stores, instantly separating most of the bow from the ship in a huge fireball that roared across the decks.

Bruner received two machine gun rounds to his left leg and burns over more than 70 percent of his body but somehow found the strength to climb a rope 100 feet hand over hand to the repair ship Vestal. He was the second to last to leave the burning Arizona. The last was Alvin Dvorak, who also had extensive burns and who died 17 days later on Christmas Eve.

At the time, Bruner had strong feelings against the Japanese, but he saw their military as simply carrying out orders.

“I don’t think the Japanese people themselves, I don’t think any of them knew themselves what was going on,” he said. The government “started the whole thing.”

Bruner served much of the war on the destroyer USS Coghlan and was part of the occupation force in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Three-quarters of a century later, Japan is one of America’s staunchest allies. Bruner continued down his own path of reconciliation in 2013, when he met in Hawaii with Sasaki, whose sister experienced the Hiroshima bombing at age 2 and who died of leukemia at 12.

The family, including Masahiro, then 4, were about a mile from ground zero. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum estimates 140,000 died from the bombing by the end of December 1945. After another A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima, Japan surrendered.

Japanese lore holds that by folding 1,000 paper cranes, a wish will be granted. Hoping to live, Sadako and her friends and family reached the first 1,000 and were on the second when she died. The little girl became an enduring symbol of hope, peace and innocent lives lost in war.

In September 2013 Masahiro Sasaki presented the USS Arizona Memorial with one of the tiny cranes created by his sister, and Bruner folded his own red-white-and-blue peace crane and gave it to a grateful Sasaki.

Hawaii Rep. Sam Kong, a Democrat whose district covers Aiea, said he plans to work with the Department of Education to pick a school to help make the paper cranes Bruner will pass out.

Kong said it would be wonderful “just for our own children to be involved for their own education and history — because that seems to be getting lost.”

McGrath, who lives in Palos Verdes, Calif., and visits Bruner every Thursday, said the plan is to head to Japan in about the third week in October with a stop in Hawaii first to rest up. A Japanese newspaper plans to publicize Bruner’s visit, and over a couple of days at the Hiroshima museum, Bruner will meet with Japanese, and “anybody that brings him a crane, he will give one of his cranes to them as a sign of peace,” McGrath said.

Every year, thousands of wreaths of “senbazuru” — 1,000 cranes strung together on string — are draped over a statue of Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima Peace Park. President Barack Obama presented four paper cranes to the museum in May when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima.

Bruner said his own gift of paper cranes will be a “sign of good friendship.”

Bruner and McGrath are seeking funding to defray the cost of the trip through their nonprofit foundation at dreamgifttoamerica.com. The pair is also attempting to develop in Honolulu a museum-type attraction to be called the “USS Arizona World War II Experience,” McGrath said.

“We’re working with the Governor’s Office now in Hawaii to do that,” he said.

Bruner, who will turn 96 on Nov. 4, feels close to fellow crew members of the Arizona, and even after nearly 75 years still gets choked up thinking about the 1,177 who lost their lives on the battleship that day.

He plans to be at Pearl Harbor for the upcoming 75th anniversary “to reacquaint myself” and “salute all my friends,” he said.

©2016 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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