Robert Murray Hanson was born on February 4, 1920 to Methodist missionary parents in Luckow, India. While traveling through Europe en route to the United States to attend college in 1938, he witnessed the gathering storm of war first hand, having been present in Austria during the Nazi Anschluss.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hanson was a student at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He left school and enlisted as a Naval Aviation cadet in May 1942. He received his Naval Aviator’s “Wings of Gold” and a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps Reserve on February 19, 1943. By June of 1943, Hanson had arrived for combat in the South Pacific with the USMC‘s Marine Fighting Squadron 215 (VMF-215).
Hanson was plunged into the Solomon Islands and New Guinea campaigns and proved himself an air combat expert. He earned a promotion to First Lieutenant and also survived being shot down and luckily was rescued by an American destroyer. Over one six day period, he shot down twenty enemy aircraft.
For two specific instances of extreme courage and heroism in the skies – the first on November 1, 1943; second on January 24, 1944 – the Marine Corps nominated the young lieutenant for, and he later posthumously received, the Medal of Honor.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):
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Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
Other Navy awards: Navy Cross, Air Medal
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life and above and beyond the call of duty as fighter pilot attached to Marine Fighting Squadron 215 in action against enemy Japanese forces at Bougainville Island, 1 November 1943; and New Britain Island, 24 January 1944. Undeterred by fierce opposition, and fearless in the face of overwhelming odds, 1st Lt. Hanson fought the Japanese boldly and with daring aggressiveness. On 1 November, while flying cover for our landing operations at Empress Augusta Bay, he dauntlessly attacked 6 enemy torpedo bombers, forcing them to jettison their bombs and destroying 1 Japanese plane during the action. Cut off from his division while deep in enemy territory during a high cover flight over Simpson Harbor on 24 January, 1st Lt. Hanson waged a lone and gallant battle against hostile interceptors as they were orbiting to attack our bombers and, striking with devastating fury, brought down 4 Zeroes and probably a fifth. Handling his plane superbly in both pursuit and attack measures, he was a master of individual air combat, accounting for a total of 25 Japanese aircraft in this theater of war. His great personal valor and invincible fighting spirit were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Hanson was flying an escort mission for an attack on Rabaul on February 3, 1944 when his plane was observed to crash. He was listed as missing in action, but he was not captured by the Japanese and is presumed to have been killed on that date. For his service period from January 5-February 3, 1944, the Marine Corps also decorated him with the award second only to the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross.
From Military Times’ Hall of Valor:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant Robert Murray Hanson (MCSN: 0-19154), United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Pilot of a Fighter Plane attached to Marine Fighting Squadron TWO HUNDRED FIFTEEN (VMF-215), Marine Air Group FOURTEEN (MAG-14), FIRST Marine Aircraft Wing, in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands Area from 5 January 1944 to 3 February 1944. Intercepted by a superior number of Japanese fighters while covering a flight of our bombers in a strike against enemy shipping in Simpson harbor on 14 January, First Lieutenant Hanson boldly engaged the hostile planes in fierce combat, pressing home repeated attacks with devastating force. Separated from his squadron during the intense action, he valiantly continued the engagement alone, successfully destroying five enemy Zeros before being forced by lack of ammunition and gasoline to return to his base. First Lieutenant Hanson’s superb airmanship, brilliant initiative and dauntless fighting spirit enabled our bombers to deliver a crushing blow to the Japanese in that sector and return safe to their base and his conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
All told, First Lieutenant Robert M. Hanson was a quintuple “ace”, having been credited with 25 victories over enemy aircraft.
Hanson’s remains have never been recovered. He is listed on the Tablets of the Missing with 36,284 of his American comrades at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines and a cenotaph in his memory was placed at the Newton Cemetery and Crematory in Newton, Massachusetts.
The Gearing-class destroyer USS Hanson (DD-832) was commissioned by the United States Navy too late to see combat in World War II, but carried the brave Marine aviator’s name in our fleet through 1973, earning a total of fifteen battle stars for Korean and Vietnam Wars service. The ship was later sold to Taiwan, and served the Republic of China’s navy until 2004 when she was sunk as a target in the South China Sea.
Marine Fighting Squadron 215 was decommissioned as a Marine Reserve unit on January 30, 1970.