WWII Veteran Hugh Returns to Kaneohe Bay after 75 Years
On Christmas Eve in 1944, Hugh and his crew were on a routine patrol in their PMB-5 Mariner aircraft above Oahu, Hawaii. The plane’s electrical system unexpectedly failed as they returned to their naval base. To make matters worse, as they reached Kaneohe Bay, they encountered a dense fog all around them. As they came in for a landing, the plane crashed, causing a devastating explosion.
Hugh was one of only six survivors rescued from the wreckage. After being unconscious for three days, he awoke without remembering the accident. Covered in burns, Hugh faced a painful recovery in the hospital for a month and a half.
At age 93, Hugh still carries the physical scars and emotional weight of the experience. That was the last time Hugh had stepped foot in Oahu. After the incident, he stopped flying and spent the remainder of his service in the U.S. Navy on a carrier boat.
In the Navy, Hugh had found a sense of community and a support network that he did not have growing up. Hugh’s mother died when he was only six years old, and his father was absent during his childhood. Under his grandmother’s care, Hugh grew up quickly and started working at age 16 in a local Shipyard in Oregon before he enlisted in 1943 and trained as an air gunner.
The same sense of duty that led Hugh to join the Navy guided him after his service was complete. Hugh and his wife settled in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a machinist for many years. They raised a daughter and son and were involved in the local community. Hugh became an active member of the Lions Club, helping with the Leader Dogs for the Blind program as well as delivering fruit baskets to older adults during “Operation Santa Claus.”
When his wife’s health began to decline, Hugh became her caretaker, supporting her physically and emotionally. He carried their family through a dark time when their son unexpectedly passed away in 2014. In 2017, he and his wife moved to an assisted living facility where she could receive care while continuing to live together. After 70 years of marriage, she passed away.
In this season of his life, Hugh has been reflecting on the significance of his time in the military. After attending an event for WWII Veterans, he discovered documents related to the accident in Kaneohe Bay. Over 75 years had passed since he had left Oahu, and Hugh learned that he was the only living survivor of the crash and one of the few people with first-hand experience of that day. It was one of the first times his daughter Deanna recalls hearing him speak openly about the traumatic experience.
When Wish of a Lifetime heard Hugh’s story, we were honored to recognize his service and help him find a sense of closure by commemorating his fellow service members who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1944.
Accompanied by his daughter Deanna, Hugh traveled to Hawaii for an emotional and meaningful trip. Upon landing, they were warmly greeted by a band and dancers. Together, they boarded a boat to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, which marks the resting place of the sailors and Marines killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Hugh was deeply moved by the respect he was shown. “They didn’t let anyone else on before me, and they saluted me,” he explained. “Not a single person was let off the boat before me—it was like I was the guest of honor.”
He continued to feel great respect and comraderie as he returned to Kaneohe Bay. The commanding officer greeted him, and Hugh shook the hands of many men and women stationed there. While the base had seen many renovations since his time, Hugh could retrace his steps and find familiar places. “When I was on the base where we used to launch our planes, it got to me emotionally,” he shared.
And finally, Hugh had the opportunity to commemorate his crew and honor the friends he had lost.
“I threw a lei in the water to honor the men who went down there.” He said. “It was very powerful.”
After returning home, Hugh feels full of gratitude. He has shared his story and shown pictures to his fellow residents, encouraging them to think of their wishes and dreams. And most of all, he has gained the sense of closure he needed.
“In the respect that I got to say goodbye to the guys, it brought me some peace of mind,” he said.
“That was 75 years ago. It just means so much to me to have been able to do this. I can’t say anything more about it—it was perfect.”
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