More than 75 years ago, thousands of men—some of them still in their teens—put their lives on the line when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched its attack on Pearl Harbor. Among them was Lauren Bruner, who was serving aboard USS Arizona (BB-39) when the mighty battleship exploded and sank after being hit by armor-piercing bombs. On September 10, 2019, after decades of speaking about the deadly assault and working to honor the memory of those with whom he served, Bruner passed away at the age of 98.
Lauren Bruner is the second USS Arizona survivor the nation lost in the summer of 2019, after Lonnie Cook passed away in August. His death leaves only three crewmen from the ship, which was the site of the largest number casualties of the attack: Donald Stratton, Lou Conter, and Ken Potts, who are all in their late 90s.
Lauren Bruner was born in Shelton, WA on November 4, 1920 to Leroy and Lucille (Smith) Bruner. Early in his life, he suffered the loss of his father to tuberculosis, and was by his mother to live with another family. That didn’t stop him from doing great things, as he enlisted with the United States Navy shortly after graduating from Elma High School in Elma, WA.
He initially enlisted on November 15, 1938, just over a week after his 18th birthday, and was slated to remain in the service for six years. After his initial training, Bruner reported to the ill-fated USS Arizona, where he was stationed when the Japanese launched their deadly assault on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, the 21-year-old sailor was directly in the line of enemy fire.
Lauren Bruner and the Attack on Pearl Harbor
It’s a story he told many times, describing how he rushed up from below deck when the sounds of battle echoed throughout the hull. Looking up, he watched as a Japanese warplane flew overhead, so low that its pilot’s grinning face was clearly visible. “I could see all those teeth,” he told an interviewer in 2014. “You wanted to reach out and bust him one.”
Bruner and his shipmates attempted to fight back. He raced for his battle station, but a Japanese Zero was closing in. According to survivor Donald Stratton in his book All the Gallant Men, the fighter fired on Bruner, the bullets peppering the deck. Bruner was struck in the back of his leg, but he kept moving forward. He never did get to fire back on the Japanese attackers. Four bombs struck Arizona, one of which ignited the forward magazine causing a catastrophic explosion.
Bruner, Stratton, and four other survivors found themselves trapped aboard the burning Arizona, unable to abandon the ship. Smoke and fire consumed the vessel while the five desperately tried to escape. If not for the heroic action of a crewman aboard USS Vestal (AR-4), tied up alongside Arizona, they never would have escaped before she sunk. Vestal crew member Joe George was ordered to sever the lines connecting the repair ship to Arizona, but he spotted the frantic five trying to escape.
Had he followed orders, it’s likely the Lauren Bruner—who suffered burns over 70% of his body—and his four shipmates would have died. Instead, George threw a line across, giving them a means to escape. Bruner was later transported to the hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5), where he remained until early 1942, at which point he returned to the mainland.
Resilient and eager to return to serving his nation, Lauren Bruner wasted no time rejoining the fight. Until the end of the war in 1945, Bruner served aboard the destroyer USS Coghlan (DD-606) and was present for eight major engagements defending the Aleutian Islands and seven operations in the South Pacific.
Lauren Bruner’s Life After the War
Like many other Pearl Harbor survivors, when Bruner returned home from war, his nightmares weren’t about what he saw in the Pacific during the brutal conflict; they were about one Sunday morning in Hawaii: December 7, 1941.
He recalled suffering years of nightmares and the smell of his shipmates burning rarely left his mind. It wasn’t a topic he enjoyed discussing, but he spent many years reliving the events of that day, feeling as if it were his duty to keep the memory fresh. It was only with the release of his book Second to the Last to Leave USS Arizona that he partially closed that chapter, and thereafter he requested not have to answer additional questions or take part in further discussions about the attack.
For the rest of his days, Lauren Bruner worked tirelessly to preserve the importance of the past. He regularly returned to Honolulu for the annual Pearl Harbor Day commemorations, always making a point to stop in at Smith’s Union Bar, a favorite hangout for the men of USS Arizona. Of his many accomplishments throughout post-World War II life, one of his greatest was ensuring the man who saved him, Joe George, was properly honored. Since he had disregarded a direct order to sever the lines, George never received any commendation for saving six lives. With the help of Bruner, Stratton, and other Arizona survivors, George finally posthumously received recognition for his heroic acts.
Lauren Bruner also launched his “Dream Gift to America,” a platform to raise money for a touchscreen kiosk to be installed at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Once operational, the kiosk will display information and an image of each of th 1,512 crew members of USS Arizona. He also established the Lauren F. Bruner USS Arizona Memorial Foundation, as a means of honoring the battleship’s crew and assisting military families across the country.
Lauren Bruner requested to have his ashes interred in the wreckage of the Arizona, to join the shipmates who perished in the attack on Pearl Harbor and those who have passed on in the years since.