A blue-eyed, freckled redhead, Guy Flanagan was 22 and working as a theater doorman to help pay for his second year at Mankato Teachers College during the fall of 1940.
With U.S. entry into World War II still nine months away, Flanagan enlisted in the Navy on St. Patrick’s Day 1941 and was commissioned as an ensign that June.
When the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, he was sleeping aboard the USS Arizona, a battleship docked at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. As all hell broke loose, Flanagan pulled on his khakis and scrambled down a ladder and through a passageway beneath gun turrets. That’s when a bomb exploded on the starboard side’s third deck. Everything went dark, sparks flew and a whoosh of hot, nauseating gas and smoke overtook the sailors.
To make matters worse, they were trapped outside a watertight door leading to a lower powder-handling room. Flanagan began to pray and bang out “S.O.S.” with the watch strapped to his left wrist, according to his friend, Tony Held. He broke the watch, cut his skin, but the men inside got the message and opened the door.
Out in the open, the young ensign began ordering men to leap into the oily, flaming harbor.
“He was instrumental in getting a lot of other guys into the wash,” said Edward Wentzlaff of Butterfield, Minn., another Arizona survivor. “He was ordering them off — booting them off. The water was full of oil and burning, so it wasn’t too enticing.”
Never mind that Flanagan couldn’t swim. When family members asked how he’d become a naval officer despite that inability, he told them that if his ship sank in the middle of the ocean, swimming would only prolong his agony.
Flanagan was among the last sailors off the Arizona, making him luckier than more than 1,100 entombed on the bombed battleship.
But the chaos continued to engulf him on shore.
“I remember distinctly taking one man named Flanagan … down to the hospital,” recalled fellow Ensign Joe Langdell, the oldest living Arizona survivor who died in 2015 at 100. He told interviewers how the first doctor divided the injured sailors into two groups.
“If he thought he could save him, he says go here,” Langdell said. “And if he thought that he couldn’t save him right off, within a reasonable length of time, he went down to the second line and that was the fellas that they didn’t think was going to make it.”
Under a headline on Page 22 that read: “Mankato Ensign Japanese Victim,” the Dec. 12 Minneapolis Star Journal ran a two-paragraph story reporting Flanagan had been killed in the Japanese attack. The Navy had notified his parents, Mankato musician Guy Flanagan Sr. and the former Lillian Rosenfeld — daughter of Austrian Jewish émigrés. Guy Sr. and Lillie married in Chicago in 1917, welcomed Guy Jr. a year later and moved to Mankato. Guy Jr. was the oldest of their five kids.
Another telegram arrived at the Flanagans’ Mankato home about a week after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.
“The family history passed down says someone recognized my dad lying unconscious in a hospital bed with no dog tags and sent a telegram saying Guy was not dead,” said Ann Flanagan, 67, the older of his two daughters and who lives in Bend, Ore.
Her father suffered lung damage from the toxins inhaled Dec. 7, but never filed a disability claim. He stayed in the Navy until 1946, retiring as a lieutenant commander and skippering an ocean tug that brought him honors for helping guide a destroyer out of a typhoon.
“He was more proud of that citation than his Purple Heart from Pearl Harbor because one was based on skill and not just surviving,” Ann said.
In 1950, Guy Flanagan married Merry Barr — a doctor’s daughter from Albert Lea. Guy worked as a teacher in Albert Lea, where Ann was born, before joining the state job training office for a long career. The family moved to the northern Minnesota towns of Little Falls and Virginia before settling in Roseville.
“My father was not a talker,” Ann said. “You could sit with him for an hour, and he might not say one word.”
But after the film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” came out in 1970, recreating the Pearl Harbor attack, he began to open up and attend survivor reunions. He and his wife had reservations to return for the attack’s 50th anniversary in 1991, but Flanagan died of heart disease at 73 that November, just three weeks before the planned return. A diver later took his ashes down to the sunken Arizona for burial.
Although Flanagan’s survival story was a happy one, the family’s fate in World War II included heartache. Guy’s younger brother, Pvt. Billy Flanagan, an infantryman, was killed in action in the South Pacific in 1944. He’s buried near his parents in Mankato’s Glenwood Cemetery.
“My grandmother had a hard time accepting what happened to Uncle Billy,” Ann Flanagan said. After all, she’d been told her oldest son had been killed when he hadn’t been.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.