Last of three parts
Attu is the westernmost island in the Aleutian archipelago, more than a thousand miles from the Alaskan mainland, just below the Bering Sea and so far out in the North Pacific, it’s in the Eastern Hemisphere. It’s a relentlessly gray place of cold, wind, rain and fog about twenty miles wide by thirty-five miles long. There are no trees, but craggy mountains whose peaks are covered with snow year-round. Today, no one lives there.
Walter Hannum remembered the guys would say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes. It’ll change. You won’t like that either.”
In June 1942, Japanese troops occupied the island. U.S. forces recaptured it a year later in desperate fighting that included a banzai charge by the enemy. The battle lasted three weeks and left more than 500 Americans and 2,300 Japanese dead.
By the time Walter arrived, the Japanese were long gone. It was June 1945, a month after the war in Europe ended, and the Allies were ratcheting up their efforts to defeat Japan. Attu had many thousands of U.S. Army and Navy personnel manning bases that launched air and naval attacks across the North Pacific.
Walter and two aviation mechanics traveled together the more than 400 miles from Adak to their new assignments. When they saw Attu airstrips not paved but made of steel mats, it struck them how inadequate the mats seemed.
“We were wonderin’ what in the world we were doin’ there.”
A civilian crew came in and worked night and day to remove all of the steel mats, and started laying concrete runways. Four-engine patrol bombers, PB4Y-2 Privateers, arrived with crews that included some of Walter’s instructors from the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis.
“They were gettin’ ready to bomb the hell out of Japan.”
Walter, a Pennsylvanian in his mid-thirties and known to the younger guys as “Pappy,” worked on Ordnance Hill as pay officer. Around him was so much ammo, there was barely room to store it all.
“Our ammunition was spaced so close, our cook said if anything happened around here, the whole thing would go up. If you were from Ordnance Hill, when you went down the chow hall, they’d give you anything. They figured you weren’t gonna be around long.”
Walter’s skill as a mechanic proved especially useful on Attu. The climate dampened ignition systems, preventing trucks from running on all cylinders. In a shop Walter and his “brother” Ralph built on my grandfather’s farm in 1927, Ralph once showed Walter what to do: Wipe inside the distributor with an oily rag. It beaded the filmy moisture into droplets of water.
“That’s all I did, and when you started the motor, all six cylinders took off.”
When word spread about Walter’s savvy, a higher-up got him to help in the garage. “Just keep those trucks running,” he told Walter, who then took another side job he was also perfectly suited for — as a carpenter.
“And, of course, I inherited the beer hall.”
He got that job as a result of the creepy behavior of a sailor in the Quonset hut that served as a barracks. The “simple nut,” as Walter called him, had found the frozen body of a Japanese soldier and taken off the head, and was keeping it in a bucket in the hut.
“When we’d go to chow at night, he’d put the bucket on a stove, and then when we came back from chow, he’d take the head out of the bucket and he’d start picking the flesh off of it.”
Walter couldn’t stand being around for that, so he’d escape to the enlisted men’s beer hall, a small Quonset hut. He’d take pen and paper along to write home, and spent so much time hanging around there, the sailor who managed the place asked him if he’d tend bar once in a while.
He did that for several weeks, and then one morning at muster, the beer hall guy said, “You’re up there every night. Here’s the cash box and the key. You might as well run the place.”
But what happened with the Japanese head?
“Well, this guy finally got his head cleaned up, and he got hold of some gold paint somewhere and painted it all up, and he hung it over the hut door. And then one of the officers seen it, so that ended that.”
Walter liked the officers, because they were casual about discipline. One morning, he and some other guys heard an officer grumbling after he’d met with the commander at headquarters. One in the group asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh,” he said, “I went in to see the old man and some guy was salutin’ me down there. I told the old man. He said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stop that. We don’t want that going on around here. Maybe the fella’s new, and he doesn’t know any better yet.’ ”
“You see,” Walter said, “there was no nonsense.”
One day, Walter learned he would have to fly gunnery on a mission to Paramushiro Island, where the enemy had a huge base that guarded the northern approach to Japan. He would be flying in a speedy, twin-engine patrol bomber, the PV-1 Ventura.
“What’s that like?” he asked a fella who had made the trip.
“Well, you sit on the floor for four hours, and then you’re over target and you’re real busy, and then you sit on the floor for another four hours back and hope both engines keep running.”
Walter knew why flying across the bitter North Pacific was scary.
“They didn’t bother giving you a raft or nothin’, because you weren’t gonna live in that water.”
Luckily for Walter, he didn’t have to go to Paramushiro. The atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Japan formally surrendered the next month.
One of Walter’s best friends on Attu was a stray dog named Old George.
“I guess you’d call him a shepherd. He would stay in the beer hall at night till around 9:30 or 10 o’clock, then he’d go down to the hut, and I’d tell him, ‘George, damn you, when I come down to the hut, don’t you try to bite me,’ because he would raise cane when somebody’d come in the hut.
“So then if you went down to the hut and he was on your bunk, you didn’t give the dog hell, you gave the guys hell: ‘OK, who gave Old George permission to get on my bunk?’ If you weren’t on the bunk, he’d get up and put his nose on it, but somebody gave him permission before he got on it. He was somethin’.
“We didn’t see him for a long while. I’m goin’ down the road in a ten-wheeler one day and here’s this dog runnin’ along in the gutter, and I stopped and I called to him, ‘George, where in the hell are you goin’?’ He got in the truck with me and come back up on the hill.”
When it was just about time to leave Attu, Walter made wooden crates for guys going home with the dogs they’d befriended.
“What about if I make a box for Old George?” he asked the cook, who knew the dog well from his visits to the chow hall.
“No, don’t worry about him. I can’t go home for a while. I’ll take him when I go.”
It’s not the answer Walter hoped for.
“I left George behind,” he said. “He was somethin’.”
Just before Christmas 1945, Walter left Attu for home. Two weeks later, at Bainbridge, Maryland, he was honorably discharged from the Navy as an aviation ordnanceman third class with Pacific and American theater ribbons.
He took advantage of the GI Bill to get his commercial pilot’s license and become certified as an aircraft mechanic. He flew passengers and worked on engines for less than a year.
“It was seven days a week, and I was makin’ $70 a week, and I could make more at pattern-making in only five days, in less hours.”
He returned to Downingtown Manufacturing, quit after a management change he didn’t like, and took another airplane job that didn’t work out. Then he made patterns for a former co-worker who did custom work, but got tired of that and returned to Downingtown Manufacturing. Beloit Corporation bought the company in 1955, and Walter stayed on, making patterns until the plant closed in 1971.
“I was on unemployment for a year. Where was a guy sixty-two years old gonna find a job, anything worthwhile?”
When Walter left the Navy, he and Emma lived in an apartment in West Chester. He liked the idea of getting a trailer, so he could be mobile.
“See, I found pattern-making was a very uncertain trade. If I got out of [Downingtown], I’d have to go to Philadelphia or Lancaster for a job. So I felt, why tie yourself down with a house and worry about it if you have to move somewheres else to work?”
He and Emma bought a trailer for $6,000. His dad offered Walter an acre on his property. “Why don’t you take this ground here with the shop on it?” he said, referring to the workplace Walter and Ralph had built in the twenties. So, in 1954, Walter and Emma parked their trailer up a slope from the shop. Ralph dug a pond for them.
Pop-Pop and Nanny, as we grandkids called them, had made similar offers to my Aunt Hilda and Uncle Mike, and to my mom and dad. As a result, a sizable chunk of contiguous land along Route 113 in East Caln Township, north of Downingtown, belonged to my grandparents and their three children and their spouses. It was a true family compound.
All three young men in our extended family had done their part against Germany and Japan. Besides Uncle Walter’s Navy duty in the Aleutians, my dad was a Coast Guard radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic, and Uncle Mike was a propeller mechanic with the 8th Air Force in England, servicing B-24 Liberator bombers.
Pop-Pop and Nanny had given these veterans a lift up.
Walter lost Emma on the first day of May 1973.
“Em wanted me to mow the yard. I said, ‘It don’t look too bad.’ She said, ‘You got more done around here when you were working than you do now when you’re retired.’ So I said, ‘Oh all right, we’ll mow the yard.’ ”
He was on a tractor he’d built. She was pushing a power mower.
“When I seen her laying with the mower running, I said oh, she got her foot under it. That wasn’t the case. She had a stroke. Em was dead.”
They’d had no children. She had taken care of him, even urging him to take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day, which he always did.
Walter built his own equipment — tractors with plows, carts and mowers, a gasoline-powered woodcutter, an excavator tractor with caterpillar tracks. His shop brimmed with tools and machinery. You’d see a technical magazine on aviation or a copy of Popular Mechanics inside. He had plastic model planes hanging from the rafters, a nudie calendar on the wall, an old airplane propeller mounted outside on the front, above the wide sliding door.
For fun, he consumed books about the Wild West, especially cowboy novels. Mom brought him bagsful of them from the county library, where she was a volunteer book-mender, and I got him some used paperbacks once. He had oversize, illustrated volumes from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Reader’s Digest.
After he died, two weeks into 2009, we went through his shop and trailer. There were dozens of photos of him and Emma, of airplanes and the buddies who worked on them and flew with him, of sailors he knew on Attu. He had saved newspaper clippings of the plane crashes he and his friends survived. Among his books were Early Air Pioneers, Veteran and Vintage Aircraft and The American Heritage History of Flight. He had all seven videotapes of the Warbirds of World War II series.
I still have snatches of memories from growing up next door to him:
- How the air compressor in his shop thrummed when it kicked on and powered up;
- Seeing him with his old buddies on folding chairs at the shop for Sunday chats;
- The time he told me that a dog lifting its leg to pee was “putting it into gear”;
- A little speech he gave me on the virtues of Hamburger Helper;
- Watching him drive past our house in his blue-gray Volkswagen pickup truck, never in a hurry.
Just before Uncle Walter died, Mom and I visited him at a nursing home in Honey Brook. He was ninety-eight years old, but still clear-headed. When we left the room, I turned back to look at him lying on his bed.
He had that crinkly grin.