- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - It’s a case of aging USS Arizona survivor - of which there are now only seven - meeting 21st-century technology. Turns out, there’s an app for that and it will benefit the famed Pearl Harbor memorial.

It’s a brand-new collaboration between Lauren Bruner, 95, the second to last to leave the burning and sinking Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941; his friend and business partner Ed McGrath; and Roberts Hawaii, one of the state’s largest and oldest transportation companies.

Coming as early as January is a smartphone application developed by Roberts that will walk visitors through a bit of Hawaii in late 1941 - through Bruner’s eyes and period photos - immediately before, during and after the day of infamy.

“I think most people, immediately, when we tell them about Lauren’s tour, they think it’s an oral history,” said former Hawaii and now California resident McGrath.

But it’s not an oral history, he said. The new “Voices of Pearl Harbor” tour uses a folksier approach, with acoustic guitar and ukulele music playing in the background as Bruner talks about the waterfront and Waikiki, circa 1941.

Bruner’s descriptions are synced with points along the boat tour and sights on the memorial, which McGrath likens to “walking back in time with a favorite uncle.” The Pearl Harbor survivor is no radio announcer - and admits it - with emotions from the past trauma evident at times in the narration.

“Imagine for a moment the imposing sight of those battleships similar in size as the Missouri, all in a line and berthed within 50 yards of one another, and close enough so that at night when things were quiet, you could often hear sailors joking and laughing with one another or playing a guitar on a ship near you,” the La Mirada, California, resident said.

The Arizona Memorial “assembly room” straddles the spot Bruner was near while thinking about plans - soon dashed - for what was then still a peaceful day.

“I had liberty that Sunday and was looking forward to my second date with a pretty Japanese bartender by the name of Nikki,” Bruner says as part of the narration. “I was supposed to meet her in downtown Honolulu at 10 in the morning, and then we were going to spend the day at Waikiki Beach. Nikki was the one who taught me how to use chopsticks, and even today every time I use them, I think of her.”

Historic sites around the country are increasingly using smartphone apps to make visitor information more convenient.

“I believe it’s really going to enhance the visitors’ experience,” Percy Higashi, Roberts’ president and chief operating officer, said of Bruner’s tour. Roberts shuttles 300 to 400 people a day to the USS Arizona Memorial, he said.

Higashi met McGrath, a filmmaker and author who also has a book coming out in January about Bruner, about a year ago. The idea of a narrated tour “just kind of grew on us the more we started talking about it,” he said.

The Roberts chief originally envisioned traditional headphone sets, but “as I started talking to our tech people, they said, ‘Percy, you should do it in an app,’ because we can change it, we can update, we can improve - in minutes. Plus the fact that you can also add video or add photos to it.”

Higashi said the app development - now in final testing - was expensive. He declined to specify how much, other than to say hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“There’s a bigger picture for Roberts Hawaii,” he said. “There’s obviously Lauren’s tour,” but Higashi added that “I really want to put every tour that Roberts Hawaii has onto this application.”

A part of the reason for creating the narrated tour was the desire to fulfill Bruner’s goal of remembering his 1,177 fallen shipmates, and to that end Higashi said Roberts will donate about 10 percent of the $7.50 phone app tour price to the new nonprofit Lauren F. Bruner USS Arizona Memorial Foundation, which is intended to help maintain and honor the memorial.

McGrath said he and Roberts are developing other “Voices of Pearl Harbor” tours with Walter Beyer, 97, who served on the USS Bowfin submarine on missions that included penetrating a Sea of Japan minefield late in World War II, and battleship Missouri veteran Jack Bollinger, 90, an eyewitness to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s shaking hand as he signed Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

Telling the stories of deceased Dec. 7 pilots Ken Taylor and Phil Rasmussen also is planned through past interviews, McGrath said. The tours will be available to the public through the Roberts website and from Google and Apple, the company said.

Asked what the park service thinks of Roberts’ phone app tour, World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument Superintendent Jacqueline Ashwell said in an email, “We support the accurate sharing of history, and this is a very personal history.”

Bruner and other men were in a fire control crow’s nest on the Arizona when a Japanese plane’s 1,760-pound bomb penetrated the forward deck, igniting powder magazines and fuel stores, instantly separating most of the bow from the ship.

The fireball caused burns over more than 70 percent of Bruner’s body, but he found the strength to climb a rope 100 feet hand over hand to the repair ship Vestal. The last to leave was Alvin Dvorak, burned over 80 percent of his body. Dvorak died 17 days later on Christmas Eve.

Bruner, who visited his ship again Saturday with about 30 people, including friends, Navy families and Roberts and National Park Service representatives, was relatively quiet, as he always is when he returns to the spot of so much personal loss 74 years ago.

“I knew an awful lot of them,” he said later of the names of the Arizona dead inscribed at the memorial. “It just reminds me there was a swell bunch of guys (on the ship).”

When asked about all the hoopla focused on him, Bruner said, “It’s grand - but I’m just me.”

It took his friend McGrath, who visits with Bruner every Thursday in California, 10 months to draw out and record the narration that Roberts will soon provide.

In a test run of the phone app on the trip out to the memorial with Bruner, Capt. Mike Saum, operations officer with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, proclaimed Bruner’s tour “fantastic.”

“I think it adds depth to it,” Saum said. “Now it’s more personal. There’s more context.” It’s also a “great idea” offering the tour as an app “because everybody’s got a smartphone these days,” he said. “Now you can take it with you.”


Information from: Honolulu Star-Advertiser, https://www.staradvertiser.com

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