By Eve Newman
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — After 77 years, Navy Machinist’s Mate First Class George Hanson will be coming home.
Hanson, who grew up in Laramie, was a sailor on the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was hit by several torpedoes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was among the 429 sailors and marines who died when it sank.
For the last seven decades, Hanson’s remains have been among those which were unable to be identified. But several months ago, thanks to recent advances in DNA analysis technology, he was identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Family members plan to bring him home to Laramie this summer for burial with full military honors.
A family legacy of military service
Hanson, who was 32 when he died, was born in Milton, Pennsylvania, in 1909. In 1916, he moved with his mother, Beulah, to Laramie, where she was remarried to Arthur J. Strouts. The couple had three more children: Arthur, Henry and Betty.
According to Hanson’s nephew, Bob Gerard, Hanson attended Laramie schools only through ninth grade. A 1927 Laramie High School yearbook shows a picture of Hanson among the members of the school orchestra and lists him as a baritone player.
A 1930 Laramie city directory indicates that Hanson lived with his parents at their home on Fifth Street and worked for Union Pacific after leaving school. Gerard said his uncle enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was 19, later re-enlisting in 1940.
An article in the Laramie Republican Boomerang said Hanson frequently visited his family and friends in Laramie during his 13-year career in the Navy.
The job of a machinist’s mate is to maintain and operate the variety of machinery and equipment on a vessel, from the propulsion to the steering to the boilers. The USS Oklahoma saw action in World War I and the Spanish Civil War before moving to the Pacific.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise attack on the United States military base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, ushering the country into World War II the following day.
More than 350 Japanese aircraft were part of the strike, which sunk four Navy battleships, among other vessels moored there. More than 2,400 Americans were killed and another 1,178 wounded.
The USS Oklahoma was hit right away by several torpedoes. Two hits landed below the waterline, and 12 minutes later the ship had capsized, trapping hundreds of sailors inside. A couple dozen men were rescued from the hull soon after, while the banging of the others trapped inside continued for three more days.
Gerard said his grandmother — Hanson’s mother Beulah — initially received a telegram notifying her that her son was safe.
“Then they had to send her another telegram saying that he was killed,” Gerard said.
An article in the Republican Boomerang on Dec. 22, 1941, bore the headline: “Five local men reported killed or missing,” one of whom was Hanson.
Laramie has experienced similar heartbreak in the years since, each time bringing pain that lingers for decades. The events of 1941 were likely no different, especially as more young men from Laramie were killed as the war continued.
The pain felt by the Strouts family doubled in 1945, when Arthur J. Strouts, Jr., who had enlisted in 1942 and worked in communications for the Army, was killed by a Japanese mortar shell during the Battle of Luzon.
Luzon, an island in the Philippines, was the site of fighting from Jan. 9-Aug. 15, 1945. An estimated 200,000 Japanese died during the battle, along with 120,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans. The battle continued until Japan’s final surrender.
An April 1945 newspaper article was headlined: “Mrs. Strouts loses second son in service.” The article says the Strouts family was well-known in Laramie, and “only one other family is known to have lost two sons in WWII.” Arthur Jr. was buried in Greenhill Cemetery the following August.
Gerard said his grandfather, unable to bear the strain of another son in the service, wrote a letter to the Department of Defense on the family’s behalf. Henry received a 4F designation, meaning he had been disqualified from military duty.
“He didn’t have to go,” Gerard said.
Betty Strouts, the younger sister of George Hanson, worked at the University of Wyoming during the war. She met Robert Gerard, a Navy veteran, on a blind date in 1946, and they were married a year later.
The couple started the Cavalryman Restaurant in 1970 and raised their four children in Laramie. Betty, a lifelong Laramie resident, died in 2007. Bob Gerard, their oldest son, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, said no family members remain in Laramie.
Bob and his brother Larry served during the Vietnam War, continuing the family’s legacy of service.
“We’ve got a pretty good family history of military service,” he said.
Bob said neither his mother nor his grandparents spoke much of his “Uncle Georgie,” though he knows that Hanson earned a Purple Heart at some point during his time in the Navy.
Once unknown, now identified
Starting in late 1941 and continuing for three more years, Navy divers recovered the bodies of the crewmen from the sunken vessel, and they were buried as unknowns.
“They buried them real quick because we were fighting two battles,” Bob Gerard said.
In 1947, the fallen were disinterred for a first attempt at identification. Thirty-five men from the USS Oklahoma were identified, and the remaining 388 were reburied in 61 caskets in 45 gravesites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, also known as the Punchbowl. In 1949, Hanson was classified as non-recoverable.
In 2015, the Department of Defense resumed its attempts to identify the unknown remains from the USS Oklahoma.
According to Sgt. First Class Kristen Duus, chief of external communications for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the remains were transferred to a laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
The first step was to inventory and group the 10,000 individual bones, which she described as “highly co-mingled.” From there, scientists used a variety of methods to identify the bodies, including several types of DNA testing.
As part of that effort, Gerard and his siblings submitted cheek swabs to the laboratory several years ago. A method called mitochondrial DNA analysis, which can be used with samples that are old or degraded, involves DNA passed through the maternal line.
Scientists also used dental records and anthropological analysis to identify Hanson.
Duus said the agency has identified just more than 200 service members from the USS Oklahoma during the last three years.
“We’re about halfway through the process,” she said.
From World War II through the present day, more than 82,000 service members are still missing, though that number is changing daily as the work continues. Duus said that with today’s technology, even a tiny DNA sample that has degraded over decades can be used to identify a person.
“The concept of DNA was so foreign 25 years ago,” she said.
The mission is an important one for the Department of Defense and for the families of missing service members.
“It does bring so much closure to these families,” she said.
Hanson’s name is recorded on the Walls of the Missing at the Punchbowl. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for. Once accounted for, service members are eligible for burial with full military honors at a cemetery of the family’s choosing.
Bob Gerard said Hanson will be cremated and interred in a family plot at Greenhill Cemetery this summer, joining his parents and siblings.