Unlike many of his Miles City buddies who were eager to enlist in the deadliest conflict in U.S. history, Thomas Arthur Hanel wasn’t tempted.
As the youngest of eight children and the only one still living at home, the 18-year-old had a sense of obligation to stay put and help care for his struggling, single mother. In the absence of a father, Hanel was the man of the house.
The U.S. military had other plans.
He was drafted directly out of high school into the U.S. Navy. He would serve from January 1945 to June 1946 when he was honorably discharged.
“I was a little bit perturbed,” Hanel said. “I had to go to do my duty and make the best of it.”
When he was drafted, it was difficult on both mother and son. The hurt was compounded when soldiers returned home without recognition or assistance.
It is a period in his life he would rather forget. His four children — who include Billings Mayor Tom Hanel — have been given only glimpses into their 86-year-old father’s life as a seaman first class during World War II. He has shared some of his experiences primarily about the far-away places he was able to see and visit, friends he made and some of the dangers he experienced.
As for any of the particulars or specifics of World War II action, sharing has been minimal. The “difficult and sad times” have been buried deep in his soul. He is part of the generation that is still somewhat a mystery — conservative and cautious.
“I don’t like bringing back some of the things I’ve seen,” Hanel said. “I’m no big war hero. I done my job. That’s what I went there for.”
He likens his experience to a storybook, but not necessarily one he wants to open.
“I have seen a lot of wounded and deceased personnel,” Hanel said. “I have seen a lot of burials on land and a lot at sea.”
Broader snippets of those days aboard the LST-927 are beginning to surface as Hanel prepares to board Sun Country Flight 8601 on Sept. 23. He is one of more than 80 World War II veterans on the second Big Sky Honor Flight traveling to the nation’s capital to visit the National World War II Memorial. The purpose of the flight is to recognize World War II veterans for their sacrifices and achievements.
It’s been nearly seven decades since Hanel has spent any significant time thinking about those days and what he witnessed. Seeing the memorial will be a testament to those who were “wounded and succumbed,” he said. He has been mustering the courage to make the journey.
“I’m ready for it,” Hanel said cautiously.
He will be escorted by his son Tom Hanel, who will be one of 46 escorts making the trip to provide assistance to the veterans. There will also be 19 additional helpers.
The elder Hanel believes the shared experience could provide some insight into the turbulent time that he has never been able to discuss.
“He can see some of the things I went through,” Hanel said.
The mayor said he has tremendous respect for all military men, and women and the opportunity to accompany the World War II veterans on the Honor Flight is a small token of his appreciation for all they have done.
“To accompany my dad on the flight is of love and respect,” the younger Hanel said.
As the elder Hanel prepares for what is sure to be an emotional trip, he found the uniform he wore as a younger 5-foot, 9-inch, 139-pound man. It no longer fits, he lamented with a smile. He also uncovered photos, ribbons and even the sea bag in which he carried his worldly possessions. It doubled as a diary on which he logged his ship’s landings — Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jim, Manus, Okinawa, Tolosa and more.
As he eased into his story, it became apparent it would be a taxing morning for Hanel. His mouth was dry as he searched for the words to unravel the tales.
“I was only a kid when I went in,” Hanel said. “I grew up fast.”
He did not elaborate.
During World War II, the LST-927 on which he was stationed was assigned to the Asiatic-Pacific theater with 60 young men on board. It participated in the Lingayen Gulf landing in January 1945 and the Mindanao Island landings in March and April 1945, carrying tanks, troops and trucks.
The worst landing, he said, was at Saipan. The shore was littered with downed American and Japanese landing craft and ships. It was further littered with the tools of war, including rifles, helmets, bullets and tanks. “It was really a mess,” Hanel said.
As a seaman first class, Hanel was responsible for menial tasks such as mopping, bathroom cleanup, cooking, garbage disposal and other labor-intensive duties that every enlisted person does when beginning a Navy career.
He was also part of the 24-hour watch stationed on ship, which meant ensuring the security of the ship and keeping an eye out on the seas for any problems. While in port, the watch ensures everyone boarding the ship is authorized to do so. He was armed with 20 mm and 40 mm aircraft guns and a .45-caliber pistol. He also served as a radar operator, watching for enemy aircraft and troops.
“We had to be able to operate anything, anywhere, anytime,” he said. “We were the largest landing craft in the Navy. We were very vulnerable. We were a slow-moving ship, which they called a slow-moving target.”
He acknowledged firing his weapons but said he “couldn’t say” whether he ever killed anyone.
“I would rather not discuss it,” he said.
His ship earned two battle stars for World War II service.
Hanel earned at least four ribbons for service, including the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, World War II Victory Ribbon and the Japanese Occupation Ribbon.
When his time was up, the young Hanel was asked to re-enlist. He declined. His mother was waiting.
“I’m proud of the time I served,” he said. “I didn’t feel bad about getting out. We had things under control, and we did a pretty good job, I think.”