Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Private Cecil Hannah: First U.S. Casualty in Western Hemisphere, World War II

 Cecil Hannah

Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom; Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

– “Lead Kindly Light” by John Henry Newman

On March 9, 1942, Mrs. Pearl Hannah received a telegram informing her of the death of her son Private Cecil Hannah, 23. The message from the War Department stated that Private Hannah died on the Dutch West Indies island of Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela, as a result of a gunshot wound.

No particulars were included to explain the nature of the wound, but relatives assumed Private Hannah was wounded February 16 when an enemy submarine shelled oil installations on the U.S.-garrisoned island.

The telegram said the body would not be brought to the United States during the present conflict, but on termination of hostilities, the War Department, if possible, would bring the body to the home for final interment.

Private Hannah, who died of his wound on March 6, 1942, was reported to be “the first American soldier to give his life for his country in an actual attack on the Western Hemisphere in World War II.”

Some time later Chaplain Ambrose J. Sullivan reported the following in a letter to Mrs. Pearl Hannah:

“The Lucasville soldier frustrated an attempt of two of the enemy to sabotage millions of gallons of gasoline and an enormous refinery. The pair opened fire on the soldier. Private Hannah returned the fire and advanced and the men fled, but in the meantime a bullet hit him in the leg.

“A large artery was severed and the soldier died of loss of blood and shock despite immediate first aid and attention of doctors.”

An entry in a journal by fellow soldier Arnold Douglas Ward added this commentary: “Shot by two unknown assailants while on Post #2 at Lago Oil Co.”

Chaplain Sullivan conducted a full military funeral March 7, which included all men from Private Hannah's forces who were not on duty at the time, representatives of the Dutch Army, the American Legion post and the American colony. Burial was in the American military cemetery at San Nicolas.

Cecil Hannah's death presents local historians with some interesting questions. First and foremost, was Hannah the first war casualty in an attack on the Western Hemisphere as reported by the Portsmouth Times in 1942? I found no further verification of the unfortunate holder of this claim. Yet, I found nothing to dispute this fact. 

And, perhaps even more baffling – What are the exact circumstances of this so-called “sabotage” that resulted in Hannah's death? Much is written about the February 16th attack, but I found nothing much about the raid on March 6th. The lack of detail is disturbing.

Lago Refinery on Aruba


Tiny Aruba has played an important role in World War II. Aruba was home to two of the largest oil refineries in the world during the war against the Axis powers, the Arend Petroleum Maatschappij, situated near the Oranjestad harbor and the Lago Oil and Transport Company at the San Nicolas harbor.The refineries of one field alone at Aruba produced more oil than any facility controlled by the Axis.

The fuel refined at Lago was used by the Allied air force and that made the island a vital point in the Western Hemisphere – vital for the Americans to defend and for the Germans to attack. The main product was 100-octane aviation gasoline and the primary recipient was Great Britain. Having the superior fuel was considered the critical edge that gave the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

Aruba – its oil installations and tankers – became the target of the first attack on the Western hemisphere. Even before the first bloodshed in Europe, the secret service of the Aberwher had sent numerous spies to Aruba to plot sabotage missions against the petroleum refineries.

The first enemy attack against American soil occurred early on the morning of February 16, 1942, when German submarines shelled a Standard Oil refinery on Aruba Island, in the Netherland West Indies off the coast of Venezuela, and sank three tankers with the loss of twenty-three lives. The attack resulted in the disruption of vital Allied fuel production.

* Note – Another report says four Allied ships had been sunk, and at least 47 Allied merchant sailors were killed, and several more received wounds.

In those days there was no black out at all, the target lay there, fully lit. The site Historia di Aruba reports: “Some Arubans, not yet aware of the importance of a black out during a bombardment at dark, switched on the lights at home and even took the car and headed for the coast, their headlights switched on, hoping to catch a glimpse of the submarine.”

* Note – Security had failed. The Neuland Group of submarines already had detailed information about their targets. A Spanish ship’s officer (Naval Reserve Officer) had reported on harbors in Curacao: “open, not mined, no black-out, large stores of petroleum on shore. 20-25 tankers, mainly enemy, always there.”

After the firing of the torpedoes at ships lying off the coast or in the harbor, the U-156 emerged and the crew hurried to prepare the heavy artillery on deck of the submarine for the bombardment of the refinery. In the excitement of the moment, the deck gunner forgot to remove the plug from the end of the cannon barrel and the muzzle exploded while firing the first projectile; the deck gunner was killed instantly and an assisting crew member was seriously injured.

This fatal error spared Lago almost total destruction, because after the loss of this cannon, the U-boat only had a much lighter gun on board. That was used to shoot at the refinery and at the surrounding buildings, but the damage was only minor. Sixteen rounds from the 37mm AA gun were fired, but only two hits were found by the Allies: a dent in an oil storage tank and a hole in a house.

Time Magazine reported on the shelling of Lago and carried this eyewitness account from Associated Press Photographer Herbert White: “A mile offshore a submarine lay on the surface, pouring shells at the island. Already two tankers in the harbor were on fire, flaming oil spread over the water. The harbor scene was like a raging forest fire right in your own front yard… The blaze was shooting up high over the waterfront. I could see the decks of [one] ship as a mass of flames.”

Later, historians made much about the “monumental error of placing the tankers within the narrow confines of the harbor instead of anchored in the roadstead.” It seems fate also played a part in saving the installation.

According to Historia di Aruba, Aruba escaped that night and not only because the bombardment of Lago failed: there also was a ship, loaded with 3000 tons of TNT (dynamite), in the harbor. The 'Henry Gibbons' just had not yet set sail when the torpedo attack started. The crew still wanted to have a cup of coffee before taking to sea … If it had been a direct hit, the devastation on Aruba would have been unimaginable.”

Threats to Lago may have ended, but German activity persisted. A report on February 22, 1942, expressed five submarines were still believed to be in the area and that the Norwegian tanker Konesgaard had been torpedoed the day before off Curacao and that today “a Dutch coast patrol vessel fired unsuccessfully on a submarine which had surfaced just off the entrance to San Nicolaas harbor.”

In messages sent on the 24th Consul Standish reported that the American motor tanker Sun had been torpedoed fifty miles northwest of Aruba at 10:00 a.m. on the 23rd and that the Panamanian tanker Thalia had been sunk in the same area. Although badly holed amidships, the Sun was able to make it to San Nicolas harbor.

In April there was an attempt to shell the Curacao refinery and submarine activity continued in the Caribbean until 1945.

Private Cecil Hannah

Cecil Hannah was a private in the U.S. Army, C Company, 166th Infantry Battalion. He was drafted and enlisted on February 7, 1941 at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. Hannah was killed in Aruba on March 6, 1942. He was buried in the American Military Cemetery in Savaneta, Aruba. In February 1947 his body was transferred to the Lucasville Cemetery in Lucasville, Ohio. 

Honda Knot Under Golden Gate

* Note – A later article (1948) in the Portsmouth Times stated that “two Scioto County soldiers were among the 1.150 servicemen whose bodies are being returned to the United States from the Caribbean and South America aboard the (United States Army Transport) Honda Knot, the army announced today.” The ship was to dock in San Francisco.

The article continued … “The local men are 2nd Lt. Lewis Warren, son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Warren of Sciotoville Route 2 and Pvt. Cecil Hannah, son of Mrs. Pearl Hannah of Lucasville. Lt. Warren, a pilot in the ferry command was killed June 7, 1944 in an airplane crash in Natal, Brazil. He was 22. Pvt. Hannah, first soldier fatality from Lucasville during the war, died of a gun wound on the Dutch West Indies island of Aruba off the coast of Venezuela in March 1942.  He was 23."

The entire repatriation and overseas burial program was conducted from 1945 to 1951, at a cost of $200,000,000 in 1945 dollars (several billion today). It was the most extensive reburial program following a foreign war. The arrival of the Honda Knot officially initiated what one observer called the “most melancholy immigration movement in the history of man.”

Cecil Hannah was born in Alcorn (Rock House), Kentucky on April 4, 1918. Before entering the service, he worked for a dairy in Delaware, Ohio. He was also a resident of Madison County. He had received his army training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The regiment moved to New Orleans, and 1st Battalion was detached to Task Force 1291, serving as a garrison unit in Aruba and Curaçao in the Caribbean.

Private Hannah was home on a short furlough before Christmas in 1941. About six weeks before his death, the family received a card from him saying he had landed safely at his new post. The card, however, did not disclose his location.

Cecil was the son of John and Pearl Tackett Hannah. His father, John Hannah, was a member of a group which was drowned in the Ohio River in 1930 during a severe storm. Cecil was survived by his mother; four brothers – Jack of Baltimore, Sterling of Lucasville, William and Charles at home; a sister – Mrs. Carl Bennett of Columbus; a half brother – Dow Allard MeNeer of Lucasville; and a nephew – Clarence, who made his home with the Hannahs in Lucasville. A sister preceded him in death about five years before his death.


The Mystery

The lack of details about enemy action in Aruba on March 6, 1942 is puzzling to say the least. Cecil Hannah was reported killed while on sentry duty by “unknown assailants.” What exactly does this mean? Were the attackers German spies, Nazi sympathizers, or someone else? Who was involved and why isn't the report clear about what was evidently a major attack, after February 16, in Aruba? I hope someone can attain a full U.S. Military report on the death of Hannah.

As stated previously, Chaplain Ambrose J. Sullivan wrote:

The Lucasville soldier frustrated an attempt of two of the enemy to sabotage millions of gallons of gasoline and an enormous refinery. The pair opened fire on the soldier. Private Hannah returned the fire and advanced and the men fled, but in the meantime a bullet hit him in the leg.”

Here is a journal entry by fellow serviceman Arnold Douglas Ward concerning the event:

Time elapses quickly. One month today since we landed - one dead already Pvt. Cecil Hannah from Lucasville, Ohio, killed in the line of duty – Shot by two unknown assailants while on Post #2 at Lago Oil Co – shot in leg and died at hospital from loss of blood. Funeral held here in library terrace. Impressive, unique native hearse. Looked like station wagon, only not like one upon closer inspection. Doors and body were carved – after ceremony – or service (during which we sang, “Lead Kindly Light” with Lt. Drove field playing organ). 8 black plumes were mounted on top of hearse before departing for cemetery. Three volleys fired at grave.”

Further notation by Ward under the headline “Taps for Private Hannah” ...

Private Cecil Hannah was fatally shot while on guard duty as a sentry at Aruba. He died while on duty at a lonely post. The words are simple to say, but the act carries the thunder of revenge and the utmost in loyalty that a man can give. Private Hannah would not want a eulogy. He would more than likely appreciate having his life back long enough to know that he had not given his life in vain; long enough to see the victorious end of this war; long enough to know that those he loved back home can live in the peace and security they deserve. While Private Hannah cannot have his life back, there are plenty of us here to see that his desires are fulfilled in a silent pledge 'to carry on' as Taps ring out over the Caribbean waters for our first comrade 'over there.'”

I know enemy activity did occur after the major attack on February 16. For example, here is an account posted February 21 ...

“San Nicolas also experienced incendiary flares night before last - possibly an attempt of submarine to illuminate the town for shelling. Entire island is and has been in blackout for past week. We are alerted from 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM and 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM at which time we man our posts, pill boxes and other vantage points in the camp area. This is Feb. 21st 8:00 PM and alert is over.”

In one listing of “Other Victims” on the site Antilles At War, Cecil Hannah appears. The notation there reads: “This group of victims is comprised of different categories. In it are a number of Antillean victims with incomplete or insufficient data, making it difficult to recognize them as official war victims at this time. Also there are a number of Netherlands and foreign persons who did not die as a direct result of enemy action. They are however recognized as war victims in their countries of origin. Some of them remain buried on the islands, most of them were transferred to cemeteries in their home countries after the war.”

I wonder if this clue to Hannah's story could help reveal more descriptive details. If he was an “other victim,” then the Sullivan and Ward reports beg for clarification. It is my hope that someone can read this entry and further inquire about the fate of Cecil Hannah. I am sure answers do exist in reports of the war. Perhaps family or American Legion officers could obtain more information from government sources. It has come to my attention that relatives do not even know about commendations such as a Purple Heart. It is a sad end for a true American hero.


“2 More Bodies En Route Home.” The Portsmouth Times. March 31, 1948.

“Antilles At War.”

“Chaplain Tells How Lucasville Soldier Died As Hero on Aruba.” Portsmouth Times. March 17. 1942.

C.J. Christ. “Aruba produced plenty of gas during World War II.” Courier. August 7, 2005.

William C. Gaines, “The United States Coast Artillery Command on Aruba and Curacao in World War II.” The Coast Defense Study Group Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 2, May 1997, p. 21. (pages are estimates as article was taken from Internet posting.)

Historia di Aruba Aruba and World War II

Dan Jensen, “A Short History of Lago Oil & Transport Company, LTD, Aruba, N.W. I.” Monograph 2003, p.13 and Table 1.

“Lucasville Lad In Army Killed.” Portsmouth Times. March 09, 1942.

“Peter C. Ward.”,%20FATHER,%20ARMY%20ARUBA/PETER_WARD.htm

Arnold Douglas Ward. Journal on Aruba During WWII. 38th Division.

“When Lago Was Lucky.”

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