How many World War II veterans can you name who fought in three theaters of war, or “chauffeured” Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Borneo on a ship he was steering or witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay? Well, if you can’t, then let me introduce you to 91-year-old Gene Hadden of Independence. This veteran did all the above – and more – during his six-year stint in the Navy, and at the urging of Judy Bebee, a longtime family friend, has agreed to share his life story before he succumbs to terminal liver cancer. Judy had intended to write her godfather’s unique story and scrapbook it for his two grandsons, she says, but that never happened. She waited too long. “I had been wanting to do this for years and now he’s dying of cancer,” she wrote in an email to The Examiner, suggesting a story be written about the exploits of this sharp-minded veteran, who in 1938 enlisted in the Navy at age 16 with his mother’s consent. Relaxing in an easy chair in his Fairmount home, Gene reminisced about the six years he spent aboard both the USS Wichita and the USS Cleveland, recalling a “miracle” that prevented him and the crew of the Cleveland from being blown to smithereens by a Japanese torpedo Gene spotted headed straight at the light cruiser. Gene recalled he reacted to the Japanese torpedo by putting his index fingers into his ears, wondering “how high he was going to go” when the speeding projectile smashed into the 610-foot-long ship. “It should have gone straight in,” he ways of the projectile. “But it didn’t.” Instead, it went under the ship and exploded on the other side. “And nobody knows why.” What amazes Gene is that it didn’t touch a single thing as he sped under the Cleveland – not even the four humongous, churning propellers. Says Gene: “Had it touched a napkin or anything under the ship, it would have blown sky-high.” Some may disagree with Gene – a born-again Christian – but he believes it was divine intervention that saved him and the crew of some1,255 officers and enlisted men. “It was God,” he says, with his arms raised high and pointing to the Creator. The young boatswain also escaped death and injury when a German sub fired on the Wichita off the coast of Africa. The shot pierced the heavy cruiser and went into the kitchen, killing four seamen. Gene recalls he was lying on his bunk during the shelling, unaware of the attack. He was told later that part of the shell found in the kitchen had U.S. markings on it. As strange as it seems, “We had been shot by one of our own shells from World War I,” he exclaims. Though Gene escaped injury during some of the fiercest shelling of the war in the South Pacific, he was felled by an appendicitis attack while loading his 6-inch gun during a Japanese suicide attack on the Cleveland. With wheels from the suicide plane bouncing off the deck, Gene was carried down four decks to the first-aid station in the bow of the cruiser. Relief came quickly. “They operated on me for 20 minutes, and I was back in my bed,” he says, recalling he was given a spinal so he could use his hands in case the ship went down. “They didn’t want me to drown.” What Gene wasn’t told about his emergency surgery was that only the tip of his inflamed appendix had been removed because his ship was under attack. So imagine his surprise when he suffered another attack after his discharge at Lido Beach, N.Y., in 1946, and discovered the back part of his appendix was diseased, too. Surprise! Surprise! Gene, who spent a year in the CCC splitting fence posts at Shell Knob, Mo., and Roaring River as a 15-year-old, joined the Navy a year later to help support his mother. Prior to that, the Fairmount teenager attended Lathrop Polytechnic Trade School in Kansas City, Kan., after completing the eighth grade at Mount Washington Elementary School. Growing up as an only child, Gene remembers pulling his wagon to Winner Court – off U.S. 24 ¬– to get free staples from the government during the Great Depression. Gene also recalls he and his mother often shared a pan of Rice Crispies – topped with raisins and a quart of milk – with his aunt and a cousin who lived with them at the time. Times were tough then. But not as severe as the around-the-clock fighting he endured in freeing Saipan from Japanese occupation. “In Saipan we bombarded the island 11 days straight days,” Gene says, with nothing to eat but apples and sandwiches. At night, he recalls, the Cleveland left to replenish its ammunition. Then it returned to pound the island. Says Gene: “It took all night to put the ammunition (on board) and ll minutes to shoot it all off. And you did that for 11 days.” Following the unconditional surrender of Japan, the Cleveland was sent to Japan, where it docked next to the USS Missouri. Sitting upon a large gun on the Cleveland, Gene was an eye-witness to the historic armistice signing on the deck of the Missouri below. While in Japan as part of a naval occupation group, Gene visited Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was dropped. Other than describing it as a “flattened city of concrete and metal,” he had little to say. Gene’s life hasn’t been the same since he came to know the Lord and was baptized in 2011 by his former pastor and caretaker, Jim Cox, of Summit Grove Community of Christ. Would Gene do anything differently if he could relive his life? You becha! “I would attend church more ... doing what God wants me to do.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.