On May 11, 1945, Everett “Red” Lanman of Plymouth, Massachusetts, was serving as an aviation mechanic on board the USS Bunker Hill when it was struck by two kamikazes during the Battle of Okinawa. He had been assigned to the Essex-class aircraft carrier shortly after it was launched on December 7, 1942—exactly one year after Pearl Harbor. When interviewed, the 100-year-old was still going strong, just like the Bunker Hill’s motto: “Never Surrender, Never Sink.” Lanman’s hair was no longer red, but the Bronze Star-recipient had a clear memory of the dramatic events of nearly 80 years ago.
Red Lanman died on January 23, 2023, at the age of 100.
Where did you first serve when you enlisted right after Pearl Harbor?
I was stationed in New York City at Pier 92, which was a receiving station. We were on guard duty there before shipping out to the Pacific. One of my first duties was after the SS Normandie rolled over at Pier 88. It was being converted to a troopship in February 1942 when a fire broke out and it sank at dock. After that, we were assigned to the USS Bunker Hill.
One of your first stops on board the aircraft carrier was Pearl Harbor. What was that like?
When we pulled into port in October 1943, we saw the sunken ships on Battleship Row. I remember seeing the USS Utah overturned and the USS Arizona at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. It was pretty shocking, even close to two years later.
We tied up there for two days next to the Utah. Then we headed out into the Pacific and went to Rabaul on New Britain, which was a stronghold for the Japanese. Our task force made a raid on the naval base there. Later that afternoon, we were attacked by 114 Jap planes. They were sons of guns! We started firing and shot down a few of them. It was a tough battle. Then our Corsairs got into the action. Their guns were firing even as they were taking off! They were good pilots. A couple of them made ace in one day.
What other battles did you participate in?
We sailed to the Gilbert Islands for the invasion of Tarawa. We also took part in air raids at Kavieng, the Marshall Islands, Truk, and the Marianas, as well as Palau, Ulithi, and Hollandia, in support of landings on Saipan and Guam. The Bunker Hill also served at Leyte Gulf, Luzon, Formosa, Iwo Jima, and, of course, Okinawa. All in all, the ship and crew received 11 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.
One time we tied up to an island in the Solomons, where we went ashore so we could work on the planes. There were no Japanese there. Well, they told us they didn’t want anybody wandering off into the jungle because there were big snakes in there. So I said, “You bet your ass I won’t!”
What was your job when the ship went to battle stations?
Mostly I was supposed to take cover, unless I was working on a plane. I would take cover up on the port side at a fire station, right near where they pumped out gasoline for the planes. There was a 40-millimeter gun mount, and we passed ammunition to the guys who were firing. We did whatever we could to help, but when the bombs started to drop, we ducked.
What happened at Okinawa on May 11, 1945?
It’s hard to remember all of it. Things happened so fast that you don’t comprehend that much. We were working on a couple of planes on the hangar deck, right near the chow hatch. While we were putting on a flap and tightening down the bolts, General Quarters went off. Then the kamikazes hit.
I was working on an F4U Corsair with this other fellow. I was just getting ready to tighten a bolt on the wing flap. All of a sudden, everything broke loose. Stuff was coming down from overhead, and a fire started in hangar deck control, where the first plane had dropped a bomb and then crashed. The other one hit about a minute later.
This other fellow and I went over to the chow hatch. Sailors were lying on top of each other in the passageway. The wreckage was terrible! We climbed over them, and I said to this other guy, “How the hell are we going to get out of here?” He says, “I got an idea.” So we undogged a hatch, pushed it open, and climbed up. The guys above us on the 40-millimeter gun mount pulled us up. They asked us what it looked like down there on the hangar deck, and I said, “It’s a mess!” Okinawa was a tough fight.
After the planes crashed, the USS Wilkes-Barre, a cruiser, came along our starboard side to help fight the fires and take off the wounded. We had a teak deck, and those fires burned very hot. The Wilkes-Barre got so close that the paint on its hull started to blister. We tried to help the wounded, but we couldn’t help them all.
Years later, I was at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the dedication, and I met a guy with a Wilkes-Barre hat. He saw my Bunker Hill hat, and we hugged for about 10 minutes. We both had tears. He told me he thought my ship was going to roll.
How did you react to the attack?
We didn’t have time to think about it. We lost almost 400 guys. They had to be buried at sea. We assembled on the hangar deck and stood in formation. They put each body in a bag with a spent five-inch shell so that when it hit the water, it sank. As they brought the bodies up, they would put them on a slab of wood and then slide them off into the water. There was a service, and we played “Taps” and fired a salute.
Afterward, a guy on Gun Mount Five in the back aft said, “Red, did you know there was a third plane that made a dive? My battle station shot it down.”
Where were you when the war ended?
After Okinawa, we went back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. We were in Hawaii when we got the news that the war was over. Everybody was excited. Some of the guys said they knew the Japanese were licked when we dropped the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. We were surprised by how powerful those bombs were.
When did you return home after the war?
I came back by train to Plymouth. I was still in uniform when I got married to my wife, Dolores, on December 7, 1945. I was late because the train was delayed. I was at Quonset Point in Rhode Island, and a fellow came to pick me up. Right after we were married, I had to go back to my quarters. Not much of a honeymoon! But I got out of the service about a week later. Dolores is gone now. I miss her a lot.
When did you start discussing your combat experiences?
I never talked about what happened until I was interviewed for the book Danger’s Hour: The Story of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy. I went to the book signing in 2008. I was legally blind by then, so I couldn’t read it. I got the book on tape. Couldn’t listen to the ending, though. Too emotional. I gave a book to each of my grandsons. I told them not to read the ending because it was too sad.
Did you stay in touch with your navy buddies after the war?
Yes. Every year we had a reunion. My wife and I never missed a one. We had them in a different city throughout the country every year. It would be very emotional because we would remember what happened and all the sailors who never came home. It’s only been in the past 10 years that we had to stop because there were so few of us left.
I also visited some of my friends. One of my closest buddies lived up in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He ran a chocolate factory. Once he took me to the factory, put a hat on me, and I was making taffy! I miss the guys I served with. I feel very humble when I hear the names of my buddies who are gone now.