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Dog tag’s story still without an ending

Sun., March 29, 2009

Man who found relic seeks GI’s relatives

Sometime during the Battle of Guadalcanal, Army Cpl. Walter Hahn lost his life and his dog tag.

The body of Hahn, a Spokane resident who went to war with a local National Guard unit and was one of its first combat casualties, was eventually returned to the United States and was buried near San Francisco.

Now his dog tag seems to want to find its way back to the United States, too. Some 60 years after the battle that claimed hundreds of American soldiers, Hahn’s dog tag surfaced on Guadalcanal and began an odyssey home.

If only someone could figure out where home is.

‘If that was my relative …’

Ian Webb was on break from his temporary job assignment on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in 2003 when a group of local youths approached him with a deal.

“Buy some souvenirs from the nearby battlefield?” they asked. The villages around Mount Austen all had tables set up where locals sold war memorabilia such as shell casings, helmets and rusty bayonets.

Webb, an Australian corrections officer with an interest in World War II, bought the items the youths said they had found in a gully on the Galloping Horse formation after a recent rainstorm. They included some old bottles and a piece of flat metal – an American GI’s dog tag from World War II with a still-readable name and serial number.

Walter R. Hahn. 20942524.

When he got home to Korumburra in southeast Australia, Webb grew curious about who Walter Hahn was and where he came from. Maybe Hahn or his family would like the dog tag back, he thought. A history buff, Webb had heard stories of people finding dog tags and returning them to their owners or family members.

“If that was the last link to someone, that would be a treasured thing,” he said. “If it was my relative, I think it would be a wonderful reminder of family.”

It took several years, but by contacting the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Australia he discovered that Hahn was from Spokane. Eventually he obtained a copy of a February 1943 obituary from The Spokane Chronicle confirming Hahn had been killed on Guadalcanal the previous month.

“A member of one of Spokane’s fightingest families” is the way the newspaper described the 21-year-old Hahn. He had joined the 161st Infantry Regiment along with his brother Edward. His stepfather, Staff Sgt. Paul Hoffman, was overseas, two uncles were in the Army, an aunt had joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and her husband was in the Coast Guard.

“A North Central graduate, he was widely known in Spokane,” the article said.

But at that point the trail went cold, and Webb’s attempts to find any surviving family members were unsuccessful. He put the dog tag in a drawer, but the curiosity continued to pull him back to it.

“It’s a bit of a waste, sitting in my drawer,” he said.

Webb kept looking. A few years later, he came across Hahn’s name on a Web site commemorating World War II veterans, and contacted John Tuft, a Spokane resident who had placed the name on the site. Tuft knew Hahn was on the list of Spokane residents killed in World War II, but he was unable to track any relatives. He contacted The Spokesman-Review for help.

With the help of local genealogists and historians, military and veterans’ sources, the newspaper did find out a fair amount about Hahn. But so far, no relatives.

Tracing Cpl. Hahn

Walter Raymond Hahn was born in Montana in 1921 to Clara May and John Lewis Hahn, who moved back and forth between Montana and Spokane as John worked in the lumber and milling trades. In 1930, when Walter was 9, the Hahns lived in north Spokane, where they were recorded in that year’s census. His brother Edward was 5, sister Dorothy was 6, and a baby brother, John Jr., was 11 months old; Clara’s sister, Etta Clark, lived with them. John’s occupation in 1930 was listed as a pole preserver, which suggests he worked processing timbers for utility poles; at other times his occupation is listed in the Spokane City Directories of the 1920s as a laborer, auto mechanic or electrician.

John may have died sometime in the early 1930s, because by 1933 Clara May was listed by herself in city directories, working as a dressmaker. The family moved nearly every year on the North Side, and the Hahn children probably did attend North Central, but Walter never graduated, according to school records. He doesn’t show up in the school’s yearbooks, either, and his enlistment records say he had only three years of high school.

Clara married Paul Hoffman, a soldier stationed at Fort George Wright, in 1938. Walter and Edward joined the Washington National Guard’s 161st Regiment, which was based in Spokane, sometime before the fall of 1940, because they were in the unit that Sept. 16 when it was mobilized for federal service and sent to Fort Lewis. If the 1930 census records were right, Edward was no older than 16 when he joined the military. He may have lied about his age, because his birth year is listed as the same as Walter’s in his enlistment records, although, tellingly, he reported only attending one year of high school and listed his mother’s name as Mary Clark.

Lots of young men lied about their age to join the Guard in the late ’30s, said Felix Entenmann, who was in the unit. Now a retired Washington State University researcher who lives part of the year in Woodinville, Wash., Entenmann said he joined the 161st in 1938, claiming to be 18 when he was really 16. The Guard paid $1 for the one day each month members spent in drill, and a total of $14 for the two-week training camp in the summer.

“That was big money in those days,” said Entenmann. He doesn’t recall either of the Hahns, but knows there were other 16-year-olds in the unit when he joined.

The official regimental history has the Hahn brothers on company rosters when the 161st was mobilized and sent to Camp Murray, where it spent more than a year drilling. Eventually it was ordered to the Philippines, and the brothers were likely among the soldiers who boarded trains south for California on the night of Dec. 6, 1941. Before they got to their destination, Pearl Harbor had been bombed and the nation was at war.

The 161st arrived in Hawaii by Christmas Eve and spent much of the year in training and island defense, but by the end of the year they were off the coast of Guadalcanal, where the United States was trying to push the Japanese out of a stronghold in the Solomon Islands chain north of Australia.

The regiment went ashore on New Year’s Eve 1942, and within a week its soldiers were soon pushing northwest along the Matanikua River toward a grouping of hills the Army mapmakers dubbed Galloping Horse because of the way the formation looked in aerial photos.

The battle for Hill 53

Clarence Gregerson, another member of the 161st who now lives in Omak, recalls the fighting in the second week of January near what the Army labeled Hill 53, which formed the head of the Galloping Horse. He said he has only a vague recollection of Walter Hahn, who was in a different company, but does remember being assigned to a machine gun post at the base of a ridge near Hill 53 when some soldiers from another company went up the ridge. He believes Hahn was among those who went up, but wasn’t among those who came back about two days later.

“I wasn’t right there with him when he was killed,” Gregerson said.

Army records and the official history of the unit suggest his recollections are correct. Several companies of the 161st battled around Hill 53 from Jan. 16 to Jan. 20, and Hahn was killed on Jan. 18.

Not long after that, Gregerson was in a detail of soldiers sent up the ridge to bury the men who had been killed because it wasn’t possible to get them down with the battle still raging. They buried the bodies with one dog tag securely attached – it was common to have it in the boot laces – and another in a ration can next to the body.

Four or five months later, after Guadalcanal Island was securely in American hands, he was with a group sent back to exhume the bodies and bring them down from the ridge, so they could be sent to the rear for a proper burial.

The one thing Gregerson said he recalls about Hahn were an unusual pair of boots the corporal wore, which soldiers called “engineering boots.” When they got to the area where the bodies had been buried, the soldiers discovered it had been hit squarely with artillery shells at some point in the battle. He thinks Hahn only had one boot when his body was exhumed, although he doesn’t know if it was the one with the dog tag and doesn’t remember a dog tag being gone. But it’s possible the dog tag in the ration can or the one on the boot was scattered in the shelling and left behind on the ridge.

Hahn’s body was returned to the United States in 1948, where it is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco. His stepfather, Paul Hoffman, who was killed later in the South Pacific, also is buried there. His brother Edward Hahn, who apparently volunteered or was reassigned to the 179th Infantry Regiment before the 161st left Hawaii, was killed in Europe in 1944 and buried in the American cemetery near Draguignan, France.

Ties hard to find

Both Hahns and Hoffman are on Spokane’s list of military dead compiled shortly after the war ended, and their names were placed on the city’s memorial to World War II casualties.

But those could be the sole remaining links to Hahn in Spokane.

Although the news account of Hahn’s death listed his mother as living in military housing off Sunset Highway in early 1943, she may have moved the next year. She’s not listed in the city directory for 1945, or any subsequent editions. State records indicate she probably died in Tacoma in 1953, but no obituaries could be found that list any survivors, or to say whether Hahn’s younger siblings lived with her at that time. Hahn apparently got married after he joined the Army, because his enlistment papers say he was single, but his dog tag suggests his next of kin was a Mrs. W.R. Hahn who lived in Maryland. The story on his death said he had a wife who lived in Sitka, Alaska, but didn’t name her.

Although the Spokane area has more than a dozen Hahns, none contacted by The Spokesman-Review knew of any family ties to a Walter Hahn who died on Guadalcanal in 1943.

While that has thus far stymied Webb’s quest to return the dog tag to a family member, it has been offered another home – with the Washington National Guard Historical Society, which is moving its artifacts and records from Camp Murray to Olympia.

“We would be honored to put the dog tag, or even a picture, on display in our museum,” said Mike Liebel, a guard historical society member.

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