Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Hap-py story

Sometimes it only takes one person and one day to change how you view things forever.

I met Ray ‘Hap’ Halloran when I produced a story on him from CNN’s Tokyo Bureau in 1995. We bonded right away. We were both from Ohio. I asked him how he got the nickname “Hap,” he said people called him that because he was always so happy. His life however was not always so...

Hap was a World War 2 veteran and former POW who had returned to Japan 50 years after the end of the war with a lead on a possible location of where his B-29 had crash landed east of Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture.

(This is me in a bamboo forest searching for the downed plane. Think of Geraldo Rivera in Al Capone's vault)

During the war, Hap was part of an Air Force crew of 11 men referred to as the “Rover Boys” who carried out bombing missions on targets in Japan. After enduring a fierce high altitude air fight during his 4th mission, Hap jumped from his plane in sub-zero temperatures, free-fell 24,000 feet before opening his chute 3,000 feet over Tokyo. When he landed he was beaten by locals, before being taken into the harsh conditions as a prisoner of war.

What he endured in the months that followed, surviving the Tokyo fire bombings in March of 1945. Soon after he was put on display naked in the tiger cage at the zoo, with his emaciated body (down about 90 pounds) full of sores from the bed bug and lice infestations in the prisons.

Hap talked to me of this experience saying most of the people who had witnessed his display in the zoo were women, likely because most of the men were in the war. As humiliating as it would seem this was intended to be Hap said he thought he saw compassion in the faces of those that were there.

The years following the war, Hap tried to move on and forget all the things that had happened to him, but as any survivor with post traumatic stress disorder can say these things have a way of bubbling up. He endured almost forty years of nightmares, the kind that make you run screaming into the night.

One of the truism I found after meeting people from all walks of life through my job, the statesmen or celebrities never really impressed me. The people that truly stuck in my brain were the ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

While the horror of what humans can inflict on others terrified me, his story reinforced my belief that we are always stronger than we truly know.

Hap and I kept in touch long after we aired our story on him, until my life swept me away, somewhere along the time of my first baby being born.

When my book club read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand a few months ago. I was reminded of the story of my friend Hap. As it turns out the author and Hap had a correspondence relationship while she was working on the book. He is mentioned in the book and has photo credits.

I found Hap’s website and reached out to him through it. His daughter emailed me back right away, unfortunately Hap had died three months earlier. I am grateful to him for that time I had with him. After the war ended and the POW camps were liberated, Hap knew how fortunate he was to survive and go home. Freedom is never something that can be taken for granted. He called the remaining days of his life “bonus days.” And since he lived so long he started calling them “double bonus days.”

Hap will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. It is my highest honor to be there to say good bye and thank you.