Epitome of The Greatest Generation: WWII hero Craig Hanes celebrating 100th birthday

Published 11:25 am Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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By Mike Barnhardt

Enterprise Record

Craig Hanes was just a country-boy teenager from Davie County, thousands of miles away from home, asleep on the deck of the Cape San Juan somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles from Fiji.

His time so far after being drafted into the Army-Air Force was like an adventure, just like the ship he had boarded in San Francisco – a ship bound for Australia that had outrun its convoy counterparts and was alone at sea.

Then – at 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1943 – a Japanese submarine launched a torpedo that smashed into the side of the Cape San Juan.

“That’s when it dawned on me that we were really in a war and them cats meant business,” Hanes said.

It wasn’t long before an abandon ship order was given. Looking back, Hanes realizes most of the men were lucky they were sleeping on deck because the ship’s hold was so hot.

He remembers well those attempts to get into a life raft. Diesel fuel was everywhere, including on him and his fellow soldiers. He had to shimmy down a rope to get to the raft. Just when he thought he was ready to get in, one of those 15-feet ocean swells would come along and carry him back up into the air.

But he made it, along with 20 or so other soldiers crammed into that 14-man raft. They could see others in rafts, and others just floating around on the ocean.

Remember, it was shortly after 5:30 a.m. when he went into the raft.

They bobbed around all day, at the mercy of the sea. Sharks were gathering. And there was still Japanese submarines and kamakazie pilots to worry about.

The next morning, there was a ship on the horizon. It was taking on survivors. Hanes and the others in his raft started paddling frantically to try to reach that ship … but they didn’t make it. At least one aboard the raft lost it, but Hanes said he quickly calmed that man down. “I told him they know we’re out here and they’ll come and get us. I just had this feeling that everything was going to be OK. I didn’t get hungry. I didn’t get thirsty. And I didn’t want no cigarettes.”

It was 3 p.m. the following day before they were rescued.

Hanes remembers many stories of what happened after that rescue, and surely will be telling some of them on Sunday when his 100th birthday celebration will be held from 2-5 p.m. at The Farmhouse at Gemini Branch, 3320 NC 801 N., Mocksville. Stop by and wish him a happy birthday, and maybe even say a thank you.

Hanes still lives on the property where he grew up in the Smith Grove community, one of seven children of George Clifford “Bud” and Kate Howard Hanes. He has no major health concerns, but gets help from son Cliff Hanes and daughter Cathy Crist. They’re hosting the birthday celebration.

He hadn’t thought much about the war when he was drafted at age 18. And after training from New Jersey to San Francisco, he still hadn’t thought seriously about war – about what he was about to experience.

He is the last known survivor of the Cape San Juan, and for years, enjoyed reunions with others who served aboard that ship.

After returning to Davie County after the war, Hanes just went on with his life. He didn’t brag. He didn’t complain. He didn’t expect anything from anybody. He never even applied for VA benefits he was entitled to. “I’ve got good insurance. There’s other people out there who need it more than me.”

A friend introduced him to Marie Green. They were married for 52 years before her passing in 2000, and they raised three children: Randy (deceased), Cathy (Alex) and Cliff (Carol). He worked at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. for 36 years, and has been retired for 41.

Hanes sold concessions and maintained the softball/baseball fields and gymnasium at Smith Grove. He is a charter member of the Smith Grove Ruritans, and a member of Smith Grove Methodist, and had perfect attendance at both for many years. Until fairly recently, he maintained a large vegetable garden whose bounty he shared freely. He was also a frequent visitor to family and others in nursing homes. And if there was a blade of grass in the neighborhood that needed mowing, he made sure it was mowed.

Now, he’s more likely to spend his days reading, eating and sleeping, according to Cliff, who lives next door on property that has been in the family for generations.

He is, said daughter Cathy, the epitome of The Greatest Generation.

“They had that community mindset to help people,” she said. “Daddy didn’t talk abou this military service for years. I think it was out of respect for those who didn’t come home.”

A video interview of Mr. Hanes conducted by Kyle Swicegood can be accessed via youtube.