Honoring a Hero
October 2, 2008 · Updated 1:49 PM
Sixty years after he emerged from the depths of a sinking USS Arizona to find his fellow sailors dying, the smoke of a sudden, furious battle curling around them, George D. Phraner II - a man who despite the tragedy he witnessed would carry an ever-present smile throughout his life - was returned to the submerged remains of his ship and reunited with those who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Phraner, 78, passed away Sept. 7, exactly three months before the 60th anniversary of the day that would live in infamy. Born Oct. 5, 1922, in Philadelphia to Mary and George D. Phraner, the second oldest of seven children, he lied about his age and joined the Navy in 1940. He was 17 years old.
"I think he wanted get out of the city. He wanted to travel," said daughter Jan Thesenvitz of Preston of her father's desire to enlist.
A year later, he was stationed aboard the Arizona, serving as an aviation machinist's mate first class. He would later detail what happened on Dec. 7.
"As usual, there was a warm breeze that Sunday morning. We had just finished breakfast and drifted out of the compartment to get a little air," Phraner wrote. "This was our normal routine on weekends, as we had no work station to report to. It was fortunate for us that we were able to sleep in until 6:30, as many of us had been out the night before.
"Just as we left the mess area we heard this noise. We went outside to take a look because it's usually very quiet. When we arrived we could hear and see there were airplanes. I looked across the bow of the ship and could see large plumes of smoke coming up from Ford Island. At first, we didn't realize it was a bombing. It didn't mean anything to us until a large group of planes came near the ship and we could see for the first time the rising sun emblem on the plane wings. The bombing was becoming heavier all around us and we knew this was really it!"
Stationed at a forward 5-inch gun, Phraner was sent below deck to gather ammunition; the sudden attack had caught the battleship and its crew by surprise. Little did he know that order would save his life.
"That's why he survived, because he was told to go down five decks below and get 90 pounds of ammunition," Thesenvitz said.
After making it back to the deck of the Arizona, Phraner surveyed the damage.
"Behind me, a marine lay dead on the deck, his body split in two," he wrote. "I began to realize there were dead men all around me. Some men were burning, wandering aimlessly. The sound of someone shouting, 'Put out the fire!' cut through the sound of the battle, but it was obvious the ship was doomed."
Not only did Phraner survive Pearl Harbor, but when the USS Lexington was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea, Phraner, who had been reassigned to the aircraft carrier, managed to escape the sinking ship and swim two miles to safety.
Many years later, after marrying Beverly Templet, raising a family of six children and serving 22 years as an aviation mechanic for the Boeing Co., Phraner said he wanted his remains to be interred with those of other Arizona survivors aboard the sunken ship.
All veterans who served aboard the USS Arizona have the option of having their remains interred on the ship. Phraner would join James L. Lawson of Texas as the 16th and 17th survivors to have their remains interred.
Committal services for the two men took place Dec. 7, with many of Phraner's family in attendance. The services coincided with events marking the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a milestone made even more significant by another infamous day, Sept. 11, when terrorists attacked the United States.
The ceremony took place at the USS Arizona Memorial and was featured as part of the History Channel's daylong coverage of the 60th anniversary of the attack. The memorial sits in the middle of Pearl Harbor, just above the site of the sunken Arizona. From the memorial's "assembly area," visitors can look down into the water and see a small amount of oil leaking from the ship's No. 3 gun turret. Called "The Black Tears of the Arizona," it is said the oil will stop leaking when the last survivor of the Arizona dies.
Phraner's remains were placed by National Park Service divers inside the battleship's No. 4 gun turret. A 21-gun salute followed, and then "Taps" was played by the bugler for the Pacific Fleet Band. Phraner's oldest son, George D. Phraner III (Skip) of North Bend was presented with the flag.
"They treated us like royalty, with so much respect," said Phraner's daughter, Lisa Phraner of Preston, of the Park Service and the Navy.
"It was really an emotional moment. It was really beautifully done," she added. "They really care about the soldiers that were there, even after all this time."
After living 25 years in Bellevue, Phraner, who had suffered from Crohn's Disease - an inflammatory bowel disease - ever since World War II, moved to North Bend so his family could take care of him. This year, he, Thesenvitz and Lisa Phraner moved to Preston. Despite his failing health, the longtime Mariners fan, who as a teen-ager would sneak into jazz clubs in Philadelphia, still continued to smile, especially when he was with his 17 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
The family created a collage in honor of their father, but it was difficult to find pictures of Phraner alone because in every photograph he is surrounded by those he loved.
"Family was very important to him," Lisa Phraner said.
Thesenvitz said she is thankful her father, an active member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, is no longer in any pain.
"We think he's going to be happy and he'll rest fine where he's at," she said.
Thesenvitz added that she's glad her father didn't have to witness the Sept. 11 attacks, but she knows what he would say to those men and women serving the United States on land and at sea.
"He totally believed in the service," she said. "He'd say, 'Go fight for your country because the greatest place you'll ever live is right here.'"
Phraner is survived by his children, Jan Thesenvitz and Lisa Phraner, Skip Phraner, Steven Phraner of Centralia, Brian Phraner of Brier, and Mark Phraner of Snohomish, and three sisters and one brother.
You can reach Barry Rochford at (425) 888-2311, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.