William Hahn, a 96-year-old veteran and Arnold resident, served in the United States Navy as a turret gunner during World War II.
Growing up during the Great Depression was difficult for Hahn, who lost both of his parents at a young age. His three brothers all went to work, and his older sister raised him. Hahn played high school football, and he thought about trying to get a college scholarship offer before realizing his calling.
“I wasn’t interested in college, except to play football, but I had always been pro-military,” said Hahn. “That’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”
Hahn went to Citizens’ Military Training Camp at Fort Meade Army Base, a month-long program that afforded citizens an opportunity to obtain basic military training without enlisting. When the training was completed, he was set on joining the Army, but his neighbor talked him out of it. Hahn was in a theater during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The movie never stopped rolling, but he heard the news from outside. This was the push he needed.
“I knew as soon as Pearl Harbor I was bound to go. I wasn’t going to wait to get drafted,” said Hahn.
At 17 years old, Hahn left school and joined the Navy.
“I had to have my sister sign,” said Hahn. “But she didn’t want to do it, of course. This is terrible, but I told her, ‘If you don’t sign, I’m going to Canada to join.’ I meant it, and they would have taken me.”
After a 10-week basic training, Hahn was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, to guard ships.
“That’s the last thing in the world I wanted to do,” said Hahn.
With a desire to “see some action,” he took matters into his own hands.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to take this sitting down. I’m going to do something about it,’” said Hahn. “I had two other fellows from Baltimore with me, so we went to see the commanding officer. He could have put all three of us in the brig for going over our chief’s head, but he said, of all things, ‘I wish we had more people like you.’ And boy, that made me feel good.”
The commanding officer stationed Hahn on the USS Alabama, where he stayed until the end of the war.
“I had no idea where that was, and they were still building it. I had to live in barracks until it was ready to go out,” said Hahn.
After about a month, the crew was allowed to board. They made one trial voyage to Portland, Maine, before they shipped out on their first mission.
“No one knew where we were going and we left Norfolk about midday and, I’ll never forget, the band played ‘California, Here I Come’ [by Al Jolson],” said Hahn. “They knew more than we did. We went right to the Pacific.”
The crew knew this was more than a trial run, and they knew once they left the dock, they wouldn’t return for a long time. After a stop in California, the ship continued west and joined the Pacific Third Fleet in the South Pacific at Efate, New Hebrides, in September 1943.
Weighing nearly 100 million pounds and stretching more than two football fields, the USS Alabama earned nine battle stars. The ship, as a part of Task Force 58, endured regular air attacks, enduring one for 13 hours in February 1944.
“I was a turret gunner on a 20-millimeter machine gun. I had a crew of two other people: a loader who loaded the gun and a trainer who turned the wheel to elevate it,” said Hahn.
According to the USS Alabama website, the ship and its group downed nine enemy planes during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. After two years of fighting and riding out typhoons, the Alabama and crew returned to the West Coast for a much-deserved dry-dock period at the beginning of 1945, before heading back to the fighting soon after. The ship eventually led the American fleet into Tokyo Bay September 5, 1945, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We didn’t know. All we knew was that we bombarded Japan twice and once at night. We didn’t have any idea it was an atomic bomb,” said Hahn. “We didn’t know what an atomic bomb was. Actually, they just told us it was a super bomb.”
Hahn estimates the ship was 20 miles away from Tokyo, which put him about 500 miles away from the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
When the war ended in 1945, Hahn was ready to go home. He finished his obligation with the military and went home to his family.
“I signed up, my rank was seaman first class, and I had a V6, and what that meant I didn’t know until way after,” said Hahn. “It meant I was obligated for six months after the war. Well, it took that long to get back from Japan. We stayed out there for a while to patrol.”
Even though his Navy days are in the past, Hahn never strayed from the water. He worked on a charter boat in Florida for two winters and had a family home on the Magothy River.
Hahn has also been canoeing competitively for 50 years. He has traveled to Milton, Delaware, for the Broadkill River Canoe & Kayak Race every year since its beginning, and in 2019, for the 20th anniversary, the race was named for him.
Today, the USS Alabama is decommissioned and housed in Mobile, Alabama. For 40 years, the crew has been invited back for re-enactments. They are allowed to shoot blanks from their stations as old planes fly ahead. Hahn said he remembers exactly how to use the machine guns.
“A reporter asked me how it felt. I said, ‘Well it was fun, but it wasn’t like the real thing. We didn’t use blanks,’” joked Hahn.
Many of the remaining crew members are unable to attend due to disabilities or age, but Hahn said he will go as long as he can.
“I try and go back,” said Hahn. “I mean, that ship was my home for four years.”