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Column: One of our own plays role in crucial battle

WORTHINGTON -- As we carry our flowers to graves this weekend none of us is heard grumbling, "Been here, done this. I won't be back." It is our intent to make that prickling walk to the gravesites again and again.

So it is for a column which this year will go to print at the onset of the 2012 Memorial Day observance. Lakefield's Richard Hansen has been a topic in another time. By some measures he can be termed the greatest of war heroes from our region.

It will be 70 years at (approximately) 10:20 a.m. one week from Monday -- June 4 -- that Richard Hansen crashed into the central Pacific ocean at the onset of the great naval battle at Midway Island. The ocean is his grave.

The U.S. Navy received its first torpedo bombers -- Douglas Devastators -- in 1934. By the time of World War II, by 1942, the propellor-driven Devastator was an out-of-date air machine. It was designed to fly at an enemy ship at nearly wave level and to release a torpedo when it came into close range. Its flying speed in this maneuver was 100 mph.

The Devastators, launched from aircraft carriers, were two-man planes. A pilot was at the front. Behind him was a radioman/gunner.

There were Devastator squadrons on three of the U.S. aircraft carriers -- the Hornet, the Enterprise, the Yorktown -- moving toward the imperial Japanese fleet.

The first Devastator formation, Squadron 8 from the Hornet, launched at 6 a.m. All 15 of the U.S. planes went down. The guns of the Japanese fleet were lowered to fire an impenetrable barrage. Japanese Zeros, flying at 300 mph, darted down to and over the plodding U. S. planes.

Squadron 6 from the Enterprise comprised the next attack force. Ten of the 14 Enterprise Devastators were plunged into the sea.

Richard Hansen was a gunner with Squadron 3 aboard the Yorktown. There were 12 planes.

By this hour the fate of the first two squadrons was known. Not one torpedo had yet been fired. It is believed the young airmen in Squadron 3 knew of the failed attacks -- it is likely Richard Hansen knew. There was no hesitating. Within 20 minutes, all 12 of the Yorktown's Devastators had fallen into the great sea.

The thing notable was that some of Japan's swift Zeros were back on their carriers refueling by this time. Other Zeros circled for their turn at refueling. The Japanese fleet was dispersed, with its guns pointed at wave tops.

At this juncture, three squadrons of U.S. Douglas Dauntless dive bombers arrived far overhead. They were able to attack without challenge, down, down, down at the Japanese aircraft carriers. When the great battle was ended, Japan had lost four carriers. Its Pacific fleet was blunted. The U.S. lost the Yorktown.

Richard Hansen, dead at 28, was born in 1914. The boy, his mother, his father and his brother Joseph lived on a farm between Lakefield and Okabena. The 1920s. Richard never really got a break.

When he was 5, his mother died. The Hansen boys went to a country Lutheran church and to their country school. As the brothers came of age the Great Depression settled over America. By 1933, when Richard was 19, there was no job to be found. Brother Joseph, four years older, was in California. "Come on out," Joseph said.

An aunt recalled, "His Dad gave him five dollars. I am sure that is all he could do. Richard went out there -- you know, on the trains. Boxcars. He bummed his way."

Richard Hansen wanted to fly and he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was smart. This is how, ultimately, he came to be a radioman/gunner with Bombing Squadron 3. The U.S. Navy still believed the lumbering Douglas Devastators were state-of-the-art war planes.

Before that fateful June 4 morning was ended, 37 of the 41 Devastators were destroyed. Devastators were never again sent into battle.

When talk turns, as it does increasingly, to the most significant actions, the key battles, of World War II, we must ever remember the farm boy from Lakefield/Okabena, one of our own in one of the biggest, most crucial battles of them all.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column runs on Saturdays.