HONOR FLIGHT: After seven decades, memories of Okinawa still fresh for Huntertown’s Walter Hansen
It has been 73 years since Huntertown resident Walter Hansen fought on Okinawa, yet the vivid memories and emotions are as if it happened yesterday.
Hansen does not shy away from speaking about the majority of his experiences in World War II. From his graduation from high school in Illinois in May 1943 to joining the Navy, going through boot camp and Naval Hospital Corps School on the West Coast and heading off to war in 1945.
But when it comes to reminiscing about Okinawa, the nearly three-month battle for the largest of the Ryukyu Islands barely 300 miles from mainland Japan, Hansen looks and sounds shaken, even after all these years.
Hansen landed on Okinawa a few days after the April 1, 1945 invasion as a Navy pharmacist’s mate. A medic, in other words.
What Hansen experienced over the next few months he can scarcely put into words, partly because of the horrendous conditions and partly because he simply doesn’t remember.
“I will tell you, you’re so frightened not knowing what was coming,” said Hansen, who traveled to Washington D.C. in late April with Honor Flight Northeast Indiana. “I do know there is a lot of it that I would say you block from your mind. When we were ordered to go in, I can remember going over the side, down the net into that Higgins boat. But I do not remember getting off that boat.
“There is so much I really don’t remember.”
Hansen was born in Denver, Colo., but moved to Illinois when he was a couple of months old. He grew up on a farm and promptly joined the service following his high school graduation. As he traveled to boot camp in late 1943, he had no idea to where he would be assigned. It was only after he was sent to learn the finer points of rolling bandages and wrapping wounds that he realized he was destined to be a medic.
“When I joined the service, they wanted to know what I wanted to do after I got out,” said Hansen. “I told them I wanted to be a vet. I guess that’s how I ended up (as a pharmacist’s mate).”
A Navy man, Hansen actually served with the Marines on Okinawa. He wasn’t assigned to any particular unit, he just “went where you were needed.” From early April to late June when the island was secured, Hansen was in the thick of the fighting that killed over 20,000 Americans by some estimates and over 100,000 Japanese soldiers.
While technically a noncombatant, Hansen was in the crosshairs of every defender of Okinawa. The Japanese had an idea that killing one corpsman was worth killing 10 Marines due to the importance of the medics in keeping wounded soldiers alive.
“That’s why we never, ever wore any type of insignia or anything like that,” said Hansen, who pointed out that officers also went without identification. “If (the Japanese) saw a corpsman, they tried to take him out first.”
Okinawa was secured in late June, but the work did not stop for Hansen. As the battle ended, he and other medical personnel shifted their attention from soldiers to civilians. In a way, transitioning from tending to wounded comrades to taking care of people that saw you as the enemy was the most difficult aspect of his service on the island.
“They weren’t to blame, but you still had an animosity towards them,” Hansen said. “You had to overcome that and treat them like human beings.”
While the Pacific War reached its crescendo with talk of an invasion of the Japanese mainland, the dropping of two atomic bombs and the subsequent surrender, Hansen did not hear much while on Okinawa. Following the end of the war, he traveled with other medical personnel to check on various islands in the Ryukyus to see how the people were transitioning to peacetime.
In mid-1946, Hansen was finally headed home, spending 17 days on a ship that slowly returned him to the United States.
“It was one of the longest trips I ever had in my life,” Hansen said. “It seemed like we would never get (to San Francisco). The ship was going so slow it wasn’t even breaking the waves really.”
Hansen returned to Illinois, doing jobs as a laborer before taking a position as a manager of a shoe store in Fort Wayne in 1956. It was here he met his wife, who worked at Riegel’s Pipe & Tobacco. They were married for 61 years before she passed last year.
Once having a dream of being a vet, Hansen did not venture anywhere close to the medical field upon his return from war.
“I wanted to get away from that as far as I could,” said Hansen, having seen enough on Okinawa.
Now 92 years old, Hansen was escorted on last month’s Honor Flight by family friend Mike Starks. As he took in the vast World War II memorial, experiences from long ago that still evoke emotion once again returned.
“It is an experience I will never forget,” said Hansen about being at the memorial. “It brings back a lot of memories of what you went through during your service time. You think back about some of your old buddies you used to have.
“It’s quite an honor to be brought (to Washington) and get to see all the things in our capital. It’s just amazing.”