Manatee resident mailed Christmas cards day before Japanese attack

vmannix@bradenton.comDecember 2, 2012 

PARRISH

The postmark is still legible 71 years later.

USS Nevada. Dec. 6, 1941.

Warren Hage, then an 18-year-old Navy sailor, had mailed a batch of Christmas cards aboard the battleship anchored in Pearl Harbor.

"Probably my first and only time," the 89-year-old recalls. "It was late enough to send them. They had to go by ship to the U.S., because they didn't fly anything those days."

That the Christmas cards ever reached anyone is extraordinary.

Twenty-four hours later, the Nevada would be a smoking hulk along with the rest of the U.S. Pacific fleet after Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Never thought I'd see this card again," says Hage.

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The Christmas card is an old classic with people gathered in an arched doorway, gazing at a lighted tree inside.

"A beautiful card," says Hage's wife, Mae.

It was mailed to Myrtle Humphrey in Iowa, the oldest of Hage's seven siblings, and the address in his handwriting is still legible, too.

She gave it back to him before she died in 2002.

The Christmas card certainly evoked memories.

Hage had moved to Iowa from Minnesota when he was 6, but by the time he was 17 he had enough of the family farm and joined the Navy.

"We weren't at war, but we were going," he said. "I can remember my dad saying that. I knew. I wanted to get in there at the beginning."

Hage's fateful wish came to pass.

The war struck Pearl Harbor with all its terrible fury at 7:55 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

Two waves of 353 carrier-based Japanese

warplanes attacked the Hawaiian naval base, raining death and destruction in a two-hour attack that killed 2,402 Americans and sank or severely damaged 21 U.S. warships, crippling the U.S. Pacific fleet.

The stark images of the fiery aftermath are seared into American history.

Images that Hage, a mess cook aboard the Nevada, recalled well.

"I'd made a trip aft during breakfast when the general alarm sounded," he said. "I ran up on deck to my battle station and there must've been hundreds of planes. I could see the markings on the wings. The rising sun.

"Then I saw a torpedo bomber drop his torpedo and next thing he crashed into the water."

Despite the torpedo damage, the Nevada's crew was able to get it underway during the attack and made for the harbor's entrance. The Japanese, however, bombed the moving target again and again, forcing the crew to beach the battleship.

"It was sunk, but not above the main deck," Hage said.

Sunk, too, was the ship's mail stowed below, his Christmas cards included, and they would remain so until the Nevada was refloated two months later.

Though Hage's family had been notified he'd survived the Pearl Harbor attack, his Christmas cards would not arrive for another three months.

"I didn't even think about them," he said. "Some cards may have been damaged beyond repair. Who got them and saved them? Good question."

His sister's arrived on March 2, 1942 -- with five cents due on delivery!

"All that for a three-cent stamp," he said, chuckling.

Hage's youngest sister, Joyce Hendricks, doesn't know whether their parents ever received the Christmas card, but she can't forget how the family huddled around the radio on Dec. 7, 1941, at their home in Floodwood, Minn.

"I was only 10, but I remember listening to everything, wondering if Warren was alive," she said from Brainerd, Minn. "We're Norwegian and we're pretty stoic, so there were no hysterics. But once we found out he was OK, we were relieved."

The war went on for Hage, who changed ships and was part of the naval task force that accompanied America's Pacific campaign, defeating the Japanese island by bloody island. Tarawa, Kwajelein. Guam. Hage remembers them all.

He also remembers the Nevada's 50 crewmen killed at Pearl Harbor.

"You go aboard another ship and you're all separated, the years go by and you lose contact. But I still have a list of the dead. They were my friends," he said. "Inever gave it much thought over the years, but did Ithink my number was up? I guess. I'm glad I survived the war, period."

The Nevada was later used as a target ship in an A-bomb test in 1946 and sunk by the Navy in 1948.

Hage returned to Minnesota, married and went on to become a brakeman for the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway, transporting iron ore for the ships on Lake Superior.

He and his wife retired here in 1988, but he is ailing now.

What will happen to the Christmas card?

"My wife will decide," Hage said.

It holds sentimental value for her, too.

"It means as much today as it did back then," Mae Hage said. "I don't think enough people remember Pearl Harbor. Or care."

Her husband looked at the card again and read its ageless message.

Thinking back, Warren Hage chuckled at the irony.

"Of peace on earth, good will to men!"

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