Service Number: 212844
Birth and Early Life:
Earl Hannum was born on February 4, 1908 in Hope, Illinois. The Hannums relocated to Howard County, Iowa in the 1910s – his father John was a farmer, and from a young age Earl helped out around the home. Farming was not the life for him, and in 1927 Earl decided to join the Marine Corps.
Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Hannum enlisted on September 6, 1927, and went through boot camp at San Diego. After completing his initial training, Hannum was sent to the base Headquarters unit, becoming a truck driver at Marine Corps Base San Diego.
Service Prior to 1941:
Private Hannum was evidently quite mechanically minded, and his officers noticed his ability. In April 1928, he made an abrupt change in career when he arrived at the headquarters of Observation Squadron 8-M, classified as an aircraft mechanic. He worked on Curtiss Falcon biplanes until June, when he and a number of other mechanics were detached to the Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois. They returned in December, at which time many (including Hannum) were sent to Fighting Squadron Six.
Hannum remained with Fighting Six for the next year; on October 7, 1929, he applied for flight training and was designated Student Naval Aviation Pilot, but the designation was revoked later that month and he returned to his duties as a mechanic.
Private Hannum won a second chance at flight training; in March, 1930, he was transferred to Naval Air Station Pensacola as a student pilot. He stayed at Pensacola until October, at which time he was sent to Quantico, Virginia. Hannum joined Scouting Squadron Six (VO-6M) as a “member, plane crew” – the “Helldivers” were flying two-man biplanes – and also served as the ready room orderly.
Hannum seems not to have been cut out for flight duty. In March, 1931, he appears on the muster rolls of Fighting Squadron 10 – on mess duty. After all the training he had been through, this must have been frustrating to Hannum – not to mention the fact that, with nearly four years in the service, he was still a buck private. In September 1931, Hannum accepted his discharge at the end of his four year enlistment, taking with him a Good Conduct ribbon and the designation of “Character: Excellent.”
By July 1933, Hannum had grown weary of civilian life and returned to the Marines. After reenlisting as a private, he attended Sea School at San Diego, possibly hoping for an assignment aboard one of the big warships of the fleet. The closest he came was a month aboard a receiving ship at the San Diego destroyer base; Hannum was then sent to the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor, arriving there in September. He found himself behind the wheel of a truck once again.
By October 1935, Private Hannum could drive around the confines of the Navy Yard blindfolded. Near the end of that month, he managed a transfer back to California, where he once again joined an aviation unit – the Headquarters Squadron of the Second Aircraft Wing. Hannum was soon reunited with his original squadron – VO-8M – in January, 1936. (He may have arrived in time to witness a minor fracas caused by the court-martial of one of the squadron’s armorers, Private Loren Yentoch.)
In July, 1936, Hannum was finally rewarded with a promotion to Private First Class, and rose to corporal by November. He does not have a particular specialty on the muster rolls of the squadron, but probably returned to service as an aircraft mechanic until December 1, when he was placed back on flight status as an aircrew member aboard one of the squadron’s Vought O3U Corsairs.
Finally content with his assignment, Hannum reenlisted in July 1937, just before the squadron was redesignated as VMS-2. Although his aviation duty was revoked shortly thereafter, Hannum stayed with the scouting squadron as they participated in various fleet problems and competitions. Duty was never dull; in March, Corporal Hannum was temporarily detached to help search for a missing Navy aircraft.
In December 1939, Earl Hannum was promoted to Sergeant; he had barely affixed the new chevrons when he was moved up to Staff Sergeant. December 1940 saw his promotion to Technical Sergeant. After years in the service, Hannum’s career was finally settling into a comfortable arc; he would have been quite content to remain with Scouting Squadron Two until retirement age.
Technical Sergeant Hannum’s squadron was moved to MCAS Ewa in January, 1941, where they became part of Marine Air Group (MAG) 21. Hannum was detached from his squadron at some point that year; he and a group of other experienced mechanics, technicians, and armorers were loaded aboard the USS Wright that November, and sailed for Wake Island where they would form the ground echelon of the advanced air base. They arrived late in November, and welcomed the pilots of VMF-211 a few days later.
The first Japanese bombs fell on the island on December 8, not long after the garrison learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A flight of bombers devastated the base in a matter of minutes. All of the squadron’s grounded aircraft were destroyed, and pilots and ground crew suffered terribly. Hannum himself was wounded by bomb fragments but refused to stay in the hospital; after being bandaged, he returned to his duties – now the senior line chief remaining on the island. For the next ten days, Hannum worked around the clock to keep the diminishing number of Wildcats airworthy. Finally, on December 18, he succumbed to dysentery exacerbated by exhaustion, and was carried off to rest. He would later be awarded a Bronze Star for his efforts.
The last of the squadron’s aircraft was destroyed on December 22, and from then on the men of VMF-211 would fight as infantry. Whether Hannum made it out of the hospital to fight or not is unknown; on December 23, 1941, the Japanese finally managed to wrest Wake Island away from the Americans. Hannum and the surviving defenders were captured.
On January 12, those military prisoners who were fit to travel were loaded aboard the Nitta Maru, a former ocean liner turned transport. The prisoners, who had been treated reasonably well by their captors on Wake, were beaten and starved from the minute they climbed aboard. The Nitta Maru sailed first for Yokohama, with more than 1,000 prisoners crammed into her hold. After making her first port of call, she sailed for China.
While at sea, several of the Japanese officers aboard decided to exact vengeance for the hundreds of their comrades who had fallen to the defenders of Wake. They had suffered most at the hands of pilots, but executing pilots was deemed “too conspicuous” – so instead, they chose five enlisted men from aviation units. Hannum and Technical Sergeant Vincent Bailey from VMF-211 were among those chosen, as were Seamen Second Class Theodore Franklin, John Lambert, and Roy Gonzales from Patrol Wing 2.
Date Of Loss:
At around 1500 hours on January 22, 1942, the five prisoners were called from the hold by a guard, instructed to bring a blanket and shoes and brought to a steward’s pantry where they were given cigarettes and left to wonder at their fate.
An hour later, the ship’s company was assembled and the blindfolded prisoners were led onto the deck and forced to kneel. Saito pronounced their death sentence in Japanese, and any last illusions the prisoners had of survival were dashed when the first sword blow fell. Only two of the Americans were killed outright; the others suffered multiple blows before their heads were severed.
As a final indignity, any guard who wished was allowed to hack at the bodies with their bayonets. The mutilated remains of the five Americans were tossed overboard.
After the war, Saito and the guards who had performed the executions were tried as war criminals; Saito received a sentence of life at hard labor.
For a detailed description of the execution, please see Victory In Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity by Gregory Urwin, pg 93-95.
Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs. Cora B. Hannum
Status Of Remains:
Lost at sea.
Tablets of the Missing, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu.