ELMA — It was a big homecoming in Elma for Pearl Harbor survivor Lauren Fay Bruner, complete with multiple assemblies, a meet and greet and a visit to his former childhood home in McCleary.
Except for a quick trip for his 50-year class reunion in 1988, Bruner had not been back to East County until this Veterans Day weekend — and he was greeted as a returning hero with giant applause wherever he went and was able to tell part of his story.
Discussing the bombing became emotional for Bruner, who still has flashbacks of the bombing. “A lot of things I don’t want to talk about — I can’t talk about them,” he said, his blue eyes welling with tears. “And when it starts, I can’t sleep for three weeks.”
Bruner also served as co-grand marshal during the annual Veterans Day parade in Elma with two World War II combat nurses. Delma (Olsen) Wood, 94, and Ruth (Livingston) Rumpf, 92, both still living in Elma, were nurses during the war. Mrs. Wood graduated in 1938, Mrs. Rumpf the following year.
Bruner enlisted shortly after graduating in 1938, was a fire controlman third class on the USS Arizona. Bruner, now 93, a longtime La Mirada, Calif., resident, was one of only 334 on the battleship who survived the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor nearly 72 years ago. He is now one of only 10 of those still living.
Bruner, the subject of a documentary in production, was the fifth of six men who escaped the inferno at their battle station atop the ship over a line thrown from a nearby repair ship.
Burned over much of his body, he spent seven months recovering before boarding a new destroyer, the USS Coghlan, and serving through the end of the war. Adm. Chester Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander, presented Bruner the Purple Heart while on the Coghlan.
Among the 1,177 sailors and Marines who perished was Bill Mann, another 1938 Elma graduate and Bruner’s fellow track team member whom he calls his best school friend.
Unbeknownst to Bruner, a McCleary resident then, Mann, who grew up on Fuller Hill near Elma, joined the Navy in early 1939 and became a gunner’s mate third class on the Arizona. Bruner learned Mann was on the same ship when it was moored at Long Beach, Calif., before heading to Hawaii. The buddies did a lot of double-dating at Long Beach, he says.
Japanese bombers appeared in the skies over Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. About 8:10 a.m., a “high-density, armor-piercing bomb … went right through the three decks and exploded directly in the ammunition magazine where Billy was stationed,” Bruner says. Fires raged on the ship, which was split in two before sinking.
Born in Shelton, Bruner lived in McCleary until about the fourth grade. Just 9 when his father died, he then lived with a cousin in Tumwater before returning to Grays Harbor as a high school junior.
Bruner was honored over the past few days as a returning hero at assemblies Friday at Elma Elementary his alma mater Elma High School, as well as Elma’s annual Veterans Day ceremony and parade Monday.
The former Navy nurses were also honored by the schools, though Mrs. Rumpf could attend only the parade because of a recent injury.
As the parade’s grand marshals, Bruner and the two ladies rode in honor in a 1959 Chrysler, owned by a member of the Yesteryear Car Club of Shelton. Quickly becoming reacquainted at the Elma Senior Center before and after the parade, their bright smiles spoke volumes.
Bill Mann’s nephew and namesake, Bill Wickwire, commander of Elma’s Bill Mann VFW Post 1948, spearheaded fund-raising efforts to bring the Pearl Harbor survivor home, including a dinner Sunday. Wickwire also drove Bruner to McCleary on Sunday, where the veteran located his former home with little trouble. Though the house number has changed, the old one, 1150, though painted over, can still be seen. That was the same as the number of people in McCleary, “until I left,” Bruner says. He also stopped by to see Mann’s marker in Elma’s Odd Fellows Cemetery.
After high school, Ruth Livingston entered nurses’ training at St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, where she shared a room with Delma Olsen. Both graduated from training in 1942.
She then joined the Navy, Mrs. Rumpf says, because “my brother had gone in just a couple months before. … I probably wouldn’t have gone in if it wasn’t for the war.”
After several months in Idaho, she was assigned to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital at Oakland, Calif.
“They were starting to come back after being injured overseas,” she recalls.
She then served at Pearl Harbor from December 1943 to June 1945, then four months at Naval Hospital Bremerton before being discharged.
Navy nurses were reservists during the war, Mrs. Rumpf notes. Had there been another war, “they would have called me back in.” But she didn’t want that — on June 30, 1945, she’d married Bill Rumpf, who’d been a chief pharmacist’s mate at Pearl Harbor, at her Hunter’s Prairie home near Elma.
Her husband died in 1978. Mrs. Rumpf has a daughter, four grandsons and six great-grandchildren.
Planning to teach in a reform school, Mrs. Wood spent a year at Grays Harbor College. But while studying French, she decided academia wasn’t for her and began nurses’ training.
Interestingly, she also enlisted because her brother, “a spoiled boy,” had joined up. She thought the Navy could use another nurse so there might be enough in case her brother needed one.
Mrs. Wood served at Mare Island Naval Hospital in Vallejo, Calif., and later at Naval Hospital Shoemaker in the north San Francisco Bay area until the war ended.
She married in 1946 at San Francisco. A widow since 2002, she has two children and two grandchildren, one of whom, Adam Wood, attends the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, N.Y.
Wood and Bruner were Elma High School’s 1938 yell queen and king. Interviewed Friday at their alma mater by Seattle’s KOMO television, a few words of an old yell slipped out: “Give them the axe, the axe, the axe …”
Because Bruner attended the Elma school just for two years, Wood has fewer memories of him than of Mann, whom she’d known for years. But the two former classmates made some new memories this Veterans Day weekend, especially their entrance into the EHS assembly, as the cheerleaders performed to the band’s rousing rendition of their school’s fight song.