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Remembering a Claremont Hero

by Jim Belna, Air Force veteran, member of Claremont Keith Powell American Legion Post 78

Veterans Day is set aside to honor the men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces. Some were heroes; others endured danger and hardship; and a few (like myself) merely “flew a desk.”

Irrespective of the circumstances of their service, we are asked to recall with gratitude the sacrifices made by all who have worn the uniform.

This year it is especially appropriate for Claremont residents to reflect upon the remarkable military service of a native son, Commander Bruce Lawrence Harwood, who distinguished himself as one of the most highly-decorated naval aviators of World War II. He paid the ultimate price 75 years ago, losing his own life as he valiantly tried to save his ship and his crew mates.

Bruce Lawrence Harwood was born in Claremont in 1910, graduated from Claremont High School in 1927, and enlisted in the Navy in 1935. After training as an aviation cadet at Pensacola, he was commissioned as an ensign in 1939 and began flying duty with a torpedo plane squadron. He was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross—the second-highest medal for combat heroism, just below the Congressional Medal of Honor—for his extraordinary acts of valor on three separate occasions.

The following accounts of Commander Harwood’s service are excerpted from the citations accompanying the award of his medals:

The Navy Cross was awarded to (then) Lieutenant Harwood for extraordinary heroism in August 1942, when he led his squadron—which was attached to the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier—in an unsupported aerial torpedo raid against a Japanese task force in the Solomon Islands campaign. Lt. Harwood pressed home his attack through a bursting hail of fire and contributed to the relentless fighting spirit and aggressive courage of his squadron, which enabled them to successfully strike an enemy aircraft carrier.

A second Navy Cross was awarded to Lt. Harwood for extraordinary heroism at Guadalcanal in October 1942. Leading an attack group of bombers in the face of adverse flying conditions, he located and successfully attacked a force of enemy destroyers proceeding to land troops and supplies; he led another group on a successful raid in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire; and he and his bombers flew at night through violent tropical storms and fierce opposition by Japanese fighter planes to successfully bomb enemy shore installations.

On November 17, 1944, Commander Harwood was posthumously awarded a third Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service while serving as Air Officer on the USS Princeton. The vessel was attacked and sunk during the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea on October 24, 1944.

A Japanese dive bomber scored a direct hit on the Princeton, starting raging fires and a series of explosions, which killed or wounded many members of the crew. Commander Harwood courageously remained at his post to direct firefighting measures. On his own initiative he fearlessly entered the hangar deck in the face of intense flames—which were rapidly spreading toward stowed bombs and torpedoes—to assess and control the fires.

Working diligently throughout the day, he led others into the most hazardous areas and personally removed stricken crewmembers to safety. While engaged in these valiant efforts, a bomb exploded and took his life.

Few men have been awarded the Navy Cross on three separate occasions, but the Navy honored Commander Harwood with an even more profound gesture of respect. Just five days after his death, construction commenced on the USS Harwood, a Gearing-class destroyer, at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in San Pedro. The Harwood, which was launched by Commander Harwood’s widow on May 22, 1945, was in active service in the US fleet until 1973.

Commander Harwood is interred at Oak Park Cemetery.