More than 66 years after Cpl. Walter Raymond Hahn of Spokane died in the battle for Guadalcanal, his dog tag made it back to his sister in Washington state.
“It’s still unreal,” Dorothea Hahn King said as she sat last week at her dining room table in Cashmere, Wash., holding her oldest brother’s battered dog tag in slightly trembling hands. “It just blows your mind when you think, ‘What are the chances of this finding its way back to me after all these years?’”
The dog tag was lost sometime after Hahn was killed on a ridge called Galloping Horse on Jan. 18, 1943. He was one of the earliest battle casualties of the Washington National Guard’s 161st Regiment, which had landed on the Pacific Island three weeks earlier. Hahn was buried temporarily in a shallow grave on the hillside; by the time his body was dug up months later for reburial at the military cemetery on the island, the dog tag had fallen off or been blown off by an artillery shell.
Getting it from that island ridge to Cashmere, near Wenatchee, took a number of chance occurrences. It was a hard road home. But Walter Hahn’s short life was hard, too.
Few good memories
Walter Raymond Hahn was born in 1921 in Montana. His parents, John and Clara, moved to Spokane when he was a baby. That’s where his sister, Dorothea, and brothers Edward and Ted were born. A year or so after Ted was born, their father deserted the family.
“Everybody had hard times then. It was tough,” Dorothea said.
The family moved a lot, mostly on the North Side. Sometime after John left, Clara met Paul Hoffman, a soldier stationed at Fort George Wright. They fell in love, had a son and married in 1937.
Raymond, as Dorothea called her older brother, quit school and left home as a teenager. He came back to Spokane and joined the Washington National Guard sometime before the fall of 1940. So did his brother Edward, who lied about his age to enlist.
That fall the Army called up the unit and sent it to Fort Lewis. Dorothea was sent to live with an aunt in Seattle, where she finished high school. Raymond stayed with the 161st, but Edward transferred to another unit and was stationed in Seattle. Dorothea rarely saw Raymond, who married Doris Edington in May 1941. Dorothea only met her once.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, the 161st was sent to Hawaii for island defense and training. Dorothea graduated from high school in 1942, got married in the fall and went to work for Puget Power and Light. She never saw Raymond again.
Among first casualties
The 161st landed on Guadalcanal on New Year’s Eve, 1942. Around Jan. 18, units were pushing west near Galloping Horse when Hahn was sent up to scout Hill 53. The patrol encountered a larger number of Japanese soldiers, and Hahn was among the Americans killed.
Other members of the unit buried the fallen soldiers on the ridge, then came back about five months later to dig up the bodies and transfer them to an American cemetery elsewhere on the island. The area had been hit by artillery shells, and Hahn’s body may have been missing a foot, according to a soldier on the burial detail.
Dorothea King remembers being awakened by a call from the Army saying Raymond was dead. A few days later, she took the bus from Seattle to Spokane, where her mother and two youngest brothers still lived.
“There was no ceremony because his body had not been brought back yet,” she said. More than a year later, Dorothea and Doris both made a formal request of the Army for Hahn’s possessions. There wasn’t much – a prayer book, an ID bracelet, some change, a copy of his marriage certificate to Doris. As the widow, Doris was first in line as next of kin, and the Army shipped the items to her in Juneau, Alaska.
Before the war ended, Paul Hoffman died in the South Pacific. Edward Hahn died in Europe. Like Raymond, they were buried in military cemeteries close to where they died. In 1947, Clara Hoffman applied to have the Army bring the remains of her husband and two sons back to the U.S. and buried in a military cemetery near San Francisco.Doris agreed to have Raymond’s body moved, and that may have been the family’s last contact with her. Edward’s widow didn’t want him disturbed, but Paul Hoffman and Walter Raymond Hahn were buried side by side in Golden Gate National Cemetery in 1948, and Clara was eventually buried there, also.
In 2003, Ian Webb, of Korumburra, Australia, was working temporarily on Guadalcanal and touring the island’s battlefields in his spare time. Near one mountain village, several young natives sold him some “souvenirs” they said were found in Galloping Horse gully after a heavy rain. Among the items: Hahn’s dog tag. Webb, a history buff, wondered who Hahn was and whether he had relatives who would want the tag as a link to a lost soldier.
“If it was my relative, I think it would be a wonderful reminder of family,” he said.
Over a span of about five years, he learned where Hahn was from and the unit he served with, and even found Hahn’s obituary. He hit a dead end when trying to find a relative, and he put the tag in a drawer. But it kept haunting him. He eventually contacted John Tuft, a Spokane resident working on a World War II memorial. Tuft forwarded the information to The Spokesman-Review.
The newspaper found Hahn’s enlistment records, the family information in the 1930 Census, and his listing at Golden Gate Cemetery, but no relatives. After the newspaper told of Webb’s search in a March 29 story, several readers called to suggest various Hahns they remembered from the 1930s; none was related. Then Sue Durant, of Coeur d’Alene, called.
“I almost jumped out of my chair when I read that article,” Durant said. “That’s my ex-husband’s family.”
Durant was married to Ronald Hoffman, Clara and Paul’s son. They’d been divorced for years and didn’t stay in touch. Durant didn’t have his address, but she knew his birth date. When the newspaper tracked him through a computer document search, it showed Ronald Hoffman died a few years ago.
Durant knew Clara Hoffman was dead, but Ronald had a half-sister named Dorothy who used to live near Seattle. Durant didn’t know the woman’s married name or even if she was still alive. But if she was, “Dorothy would want to know” about the dog tag, Durant said.
Without a last name, tracking Hahn’s sister looked impossible. But another World War II buff suggested the newspaper request Hahn’s 293 file, the Army’s record of what happens to a soldier’s possessions after he dies.
Lt. Col. Richard McNorton of the Army Personnel Command in Arlington, Va., helped speed the newspaper’s request but warned that a 293 file is often only a page or two.
The file that arrived in mid-July was more than 90 pages. It showed Doris had remarried at least twice by 1947, when she signed the forms giving up her rights as next of kin and allowing Hahn’s body to be moved. It showed she and Hahn had no children. Most important, it showed that “Dorothy” was Dorothea, and her married name was King in 1944 when she requested her brother’s possessions. State voter records list a woman with that name, born in 1923, who lives in Cashmere. And her phone number is listed.
‘I would love to have it’
Dorothea King wasn’t having the best of days before the phone rang late last month and an unfamiliar voice began asking odd questions. Yes, her maiden name was Hahn. Yes, she had a brother named Walter R. Hahn who died in the war. Yes, she was sitting down.
“How wonderful,” she said when told Webb had her brother’s dog tag and wanted to get it back to her. “I would love to have it.”
King moved to Cashmere a few years ago after her husband died, to be near her daughter and son-in-law, Pam and Jim Wonn. While she and Hahn weren’t close after he moved out of the house, she still thinks about him 66 years after he died.
“I have dreams all the time that he comes back, knocks on the door and says, ‘I just live down the street,’” she said. “This will give me some closure.”
Webb sent the dog tag to Spokane by registered mail, and the newspaper hand-delivered it to King, along with Hahn’s 293 file.
As she turned the battered piece of stamped metal over in her hand, King said it was “absolutely unbelievable” the string of events that brought it to her. She’ll keep it for a while, then might ask if the National Guard wants it for its museum.
“That’s probably where it belongs. It’s a part of history.”