When William “Bill” Hanson was shot in the gut at age 10, doctors did not expect him to live.
It was 1930, and after a target-shooting incident, the injured boy somehow managed to hobble through brush and swampy fields back to Wabuska. The bullet had entered his abdomen and split a vertebra, and “a country doctor named Dr. McGee” spent the better part of the night operating on the child at a hospital in Yerington, carefully binding bones together with wire.
The doctor warned his parents that his chances of survival were slim.
However, he did live — and on July 1, the Mason Valley native plans to join the ranks of 80,000 other Americans as the nation’s newest centenarians.
“(The other two boys) had a rifle and a pistol and I was putting the target on the wooden box and I stood up and (one boy) shot me right in the stomach,” Hanson recalled. “Well, they got excited and they took off … I’m way back there, at least a mile out of Wabuska, so I started walking.”
He trudged through brush and waist-deep muck — “some places in water so deep I had to hold my finger in that hole” — until he reached the railroad depot where he found a few men inside.
“At first, they thought I was trying to hitch a ride on the train,” Hanson said. “But there was a fellow by the name of Herb Penrose, he was just a young guy then, and I said, ‘Well I’m shot.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re all half shot.’ But I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m really shot!’ Then he saw the hole. Walking through the swamp, all the blood washed off, see. I was bleeding inside.”
Hanson vividly tells the story of “the first time I was shot.” The Marine veteran and Iwo Jima survivor recalls events from the last century in precise and humorous detail.
“That night, they told my mom, ‘There’s no way in hell that kid will survive that.’ But, anyway, I made it,” Hanson said.
Bill Hanson was the seventh of eight children born to Henry Hanson, who immigrated to America from Denmark in the 1870s. Henry Hanson would cross the plains with his first wife, Eliza, and eventually settle in Yerington. By 1878, Henry’s work as a cattle rancher fostered a friendship with N.H.A. “Hock” Mason — for whom Mason Valley is named.
“In the 1860s, when they homesteaded, in those days … if you had children over the age of 16, you could put in for acreage for them, also,” Hanson said.
One family allegedly tried to claim land for a 9-year-old girl. “It didn’t fly, and it became available, so dad bought it. It’s at the end of what is Cremetti Lane now. Dad bought 80 acres and that’s where he got his start. We had horses and teams and raised wheat and barley.”
Eventually, Henry Hanson would own hundreds of acres of land, including sites that now house Wells Fargo Bank at the corner of Bridge and Main streets, “80 acres that went right up to where the fire department is,” land at the former golf course and where the post office sits, Hanson said.
In 1896, Eliza Hanson died. Henry would meet his second wife, Bill Hanson’s mother, Ethel, while traveling on a train returning from an Odd Fellows Grand Lodge meeting in Elko. The young woman was traveling with her uncle, “the editor of the Boston Herald, I think it was, and mom and dad met in the dining car,” Hanson said.
His mother was born in Maine but came from Boston.
“Her family came from England in 1812, and I still have some of the furniture they brought with them,” he said.
Hanson’s home is a testament to his family heritage and his own contributions. Pictures of family members (including his mother, who lived to be 100 years old) and antique vehicles he repaired adorn walls and tabletops. Atop a hutch is a group photograph taken outside the old grammar school, now home to Yerington Theater for the Arts.
“I rode my horse to school and tied it to a tree, and that tree is still standing there,” Hanson said.
Hanson also has a “special room” that features a large map of Iwo Jima, military certificates and photos.
“He already had a family, his first wife, Fern, and two children when he enlisted,” said Heidi Evans, Hanson’s stepdaughter who visits weekly to check on him at his Yerington home.
“Yeah, I was 23. I was old,” chuckled Hanson. He still wears a Marine cap every day.
His experience with tractors and planes — he became a pilot at age 15 taking lessons at the Yerington airport “when barnstormers used to come” — as well as swimming skills directed Hanson’s duties in the Marines.
“I went to bootcamp at San Diego … and then on to Camp Pendleton, where they had a huge infantry training regiment,” Hanson recalled. Swimming and diving tests were mandatory. “One thing about the Marines, you had to know how to swim because they’re associated with the Navy. They had these towers — 12, 15, 18 … up to 34 feet high (that they would jump off during training) because that’s the height of the aircraft carriers. Apparently, they liked the way I swam. I was always a pretty good swimmer, even with my iron back.”
It would be his mechanical skills that ultimately determined his wartime duties.
“They put me on the Aircraft Carrier Ranger, the second biggest aircraft carrier built. The Saratoga was the first,” he said.
For a while, Hanson “ferried airplanes to wherever they needed airplanes.” He operated cranes — loading tanks, tractors and other military equipment onto ships — and was assigned to the Fourth Marine Division as a “318,” a Caterpillar tractor mechanic.
But he did more than just repair tractors. After being in the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Tinian, Hanson drove a dozer onto the beach of Iwo Jima, clearing roadways for troops to advance.
“It looked like a tank. But what it was, was a cover on a TD14 International tractor” with armor plates attached on all sides, he said. “They appointed me to land that damned thing on Iwo Jima.
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“It took us five days to get from Saipan to Iwo Jima. Then, Jesus. It was early in the morning. There’s Mount Suribachi, and there’s smoke in the air from all these bombs we fired. We got six battleships, one of them was the Battleship Nevada. Yeah, that made me feel good, you know? We had 19 cruisers, 34 destroyers, six battleships …”
Battle of Iwo Jima
Steep beaches made landing treacherous. Hanson’s tractor malfunctioned.
“I started to go but noticed something was wrong; something wasn’t working right,” he said. Then he heard a loud noise and feared he had run over a landmine. Upon closer inspection, he realized a metal piece near the tracks had shifted.
“The track was loose on that. It’s a wonder I didn’t walk out of it. That big bang made that noise. I thought it was an explosion,” he chuckled. “When I got a look at it, I said, ‘Hell, I got a perfect track, except for that piece of metal. I baled back inside because that was the safest place.”
Hanson made multiple passes, clearing roadways like pushing “through wheat.” He spent 36 days on Iwo Jima — “never took my boots off even one day” — and saw men die and helped save others.
“Right after I got up (the hill on the beach), here comes this guy sliding down off the bank,” Hanson somberly recalled. “A Marine. He’s right there at eye level. I see him … This guy took off his helmet, took a clip from his waist and I noticed … there was something laced in his helmet, maybe family pictures or something? I was looking at that and — wham! — there was an explosion right in front of me … I look over and the only thing visible was his lower jaw and I could see one silver tooth and two gold teeth.”
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During another battle, his buddy “Mac” was injured. Hanson’s own experience as an avid hunter and being shot as a child taught him what positions to lay Mac in to give him the best odds of survival. Hanson “stood on the back of the Jeep, which had decks” to help get his seriously wounded friend back to the beach.
“I thought I’d never see Mac again. They took him out and put him on a hospital ship and took him to Pearl (Harbor),” Hanson said, then paused. “Now Mac had a girl, Josephine. I never saw Josephine, but Mac was my best buddy and he was always talking about Josephine. So, when we finally got back, two months later, as our ship pulled in, I remember thinking I’d tell her what a brave guy he was. But who the hell is standing on the dock? Mac and Josephine.”
Marine connections would continue to shape Hanson’s life. Serendipitous, perhaps, but the first husband of Hanson’s second wife, Phyllis — who he was married to for more than 36 years and died last year — was killed in Iwo Jima. He, like Hanson, was in the Fourth Marine Division.
Life after World War II
Hanson’s mechanic and building skills were also put to use as a civilian with construction, roadway and mine building positions throughout the world.
“He was a pilot, so he flew himself a lot of the time,” Evans said. “He worked all over (the globe) and throughout Nevada. He’d fly generator parts out to the remote ranches. He was a lifeline to a lot of the ranches.”
One of Evans’ favorite stories Hanson tells is about time spent in Boron, Calif.
“When they were opening up the Borax mine in Boron, it was during the era where they had the Air Force Base jet jockeys trying to break the sound barrier,” Evans said. “They had the miners working on the mine, and literally rocket scientists there trying to develop different rocket fuels, and they all lived in the same little community. They were all friends; their kids all went to school together. One Day, Bill was saying, ‘Yeah, it really used to make the ladies mad when Chuck (Yeager, the first pilot confirmed to exceed the speed of sound while in level flight) would fly his jet over the houses and make all the China rattle.’”
To celebrate Hanson, friends and family plan a drive-by parade — keeping COVID-19 safety restrictions in place — to honor the 100th birthday of a man who beat the odds.
“Bill and my mom (Phyllis) were superb role models on how to live life to the fullest,” Evans said.
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