Navy vet’s ashes destined for sunken Pearl Harbor battleship

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — On Dec. 7, 1941, then-21-year-old Lauren Bruner was the second-to-last man to escape the burning wreckage of the USS Arizona after a Japanese plane dropped a bomb that ignited an enormous explosion in the battleship’s ammunition storage compartment.

He lived to be 98 years old, marrying twice and outliving both wives. He worked for a refrigeration company for nearly four decades.

This weekend, divers will place Bruner’s ashes inside the battleship’s wreckage, which sits in Pearl Harbor where it sank during the attack 78 years ago that thrust the United States into World War II. The Southern California man will be the 44th and last crew member to be interred in accordance with this rare Navy ritual. The last three living Arizona survivors plan to be laid to rest with their families.

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The somber ceremony and other events marking the attack anniversary come on the heels of a deadly shooting at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard on Wednesday, when a Navy sailor shot and killed two people and wounded a third before taking his life. In another deadly attack at a Navy base Friday, a shooter opened fire in a classroom building at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.

A spokesman said Pearl Harbor anniversary events will proceed as scheduled.

Bruner said he wanted to return to his ship because few people go to cemeteries, while more than 1 million people visit the Arizona each year. He also saw it as a way to join old friends who never made it off the warship.

“I thought, well, all my buddies are right here. And there are a lot of people who come to see the ship,” Bruner told The Associated Press in an interview in 2016, three years before he died in his sleep in September. Bruner traveled from his La Mirada, California, home to attend Pearl Harbor anniversary events many times.

​​​​​​​Lauren Bruner, a survivor of the USS Arizona which was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, holds with a 1940 photo of himself at his home in La Mirada, Calif., Nov. 17, 2016. He died earlier in 2019 at age 98. (Associated Press)

​​​​​​​Lauren Bruner, a survivor of the USS Arizona which was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, holds with a 1940 photo of himself at his home in La Mirada, Calif., Nov. 17, 2016. He died earlier in 2019 at age 98. (Associated Press)

The Navy began interring Pearl Harbor survivors on their old ships in 1982. The wrecks of only two vessels remain in the harbor — the Arizona and USS Utah — so survivors of those ships are the only ones who have the option to be laid to rest this way. Most of the ships hit that day were repaired and put back into service or scrapped.

Neither underwater archaeologists at the Navy History and Heritage Command or those who handle burials for the Navy Personnel Command were aware of any interments conducted on sunken Navy vessels elsewhere.

Of the 1,177 USS Arizona sailors and Marines killed at Pearl Harbor, more than 900 could not be recovered and remain entombed on the ship, which sank in nine minutes. A memorial built in 1962 sits above the wreckage.

Sixty died on the Utah, and three have been interred there. At least one of the three living Utah survivors wants his ashes placed on his old ship.

Bruner’s ashes will be placed aboard the Arizona following a sunset ceremony Saturday, the anniversary of the Japanese attack.

Loved ones will stand on the USS Arizona Memorial’s dock and hand an urn to scuba divers in the water. The divers will guide the container to the barnacled wreckage and carefully place it inside.

Servicemen will then perform a gun salute and present an American flag to next of kin.

Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, said the Arizona ceremony honors those who survived the bombing while also offering a reminder of the many lives cut short because of it. Much of it is held fronting a white marble wall engraved with the names of the Arizona sailors and Marines who died in the attack.

“It’s a celebration of a life well lived,” Martinez said.

Joseph Langdell’s ashes were interred on the Arizona in 2015. One of his two sons, Ted Langdell, said his father asked to be placed there out of regard for those who didn’t make it out, as well as for those who survived and worked hard to keep the memory of the Arizona alive.

Smoke rises from the battleship USS Arizona as it sinks during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. (Associated Press)

Smoke rises from the battleship USS Arizona as it sinks during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. (Associated Press)

“It’s emotional. It’s reverent. And it makes me think not just of him but of the other people. It’s hard to imagine that all of the sudden, all of these people are gone,” Ted Langdell said.

Saturday's public Pearl Harbor ceremony, an annual event hosted by the Navy and National Park Service, will observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the exact time the attack began. In all, more than 2,300 Americans died.

Bruner didn’t know who was attacking until the planes got close enough for him to see the red Rising Sun insignia on their sides. The aircraft shot at “everything in sight,” he said. Then an explosion tore through his battle station.

He tried to get off the ship as fast as he could, but he couldn’t jump because the oil leaking into the water below was on fire.

Bruner and several fellow shipmates shouted to a sailor on the ship moored next to the Arizona to toss over some rope. The six of them used the rope to carry themselves hand-over-hand to the USS Vestal 100 feet (30 meters) away.

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“You’re like a chicken getting barbecued,” he said. All of them made it, becoming six of the 335 sailors and Marines on the Arizona to survive. Bruner spent months recovering from burns.

He later spoke to school groups and others about his ordeal. His friend Ed Hoeschen, who often accompanied him on these visits, said Bruner never did it for the fame and glory.

“It wasn’t about him,” Hoeschen said. “It was about (people) meeting a member of the USS Arizona. And that’s what he wanted people to remember. Just remember the men of the Arizona.”