A storied CIA operative, Howard P. Hart died recently at age 76. His connection to The National WWII Museum includes a substantial donation of wartime arms currently on display in multiple galleries on our campus, as well as two separate oral history interviews for our Digital Collections. The interviews, conducted by historian Tom Gibbs, covered Hart’s experiences as a child during the war while his family was held in a Japanese civilian incarceration camp in the Philippines. Now Museum Project Manager, Gibbs recalled meeting Hart for the first time in this post for the Museum blog:
I had the honor of sitting down with Howard Hart on a cold and snowy day in 2013 outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. When I arrived at his property, I did not know what to expect. What I did know was that I was about to meet someone extremely intelligent who had a heck of a story to tell about World War II. I was instructed by Mr. Hart to meet him at a post store—an old-timey general store that sold everything from wine to ammunition—at the base of the mountain where he lived. A white jeep stopped directly in front of me. A white-haired man in a low voice asked me for my identification. It was an unusual first step, and something that had never happened when I had interviewed other WWII veterans. I felt like I was in the middle of a Tom Clancy novel. When Mr. Hart determined that I passed muster, the warmest smile and greeting ensued, and I took a trip up the mountain to his famous home.
I knew Mr. Hart had a long and decorated CIA career, but the real reason I was there was to capture the story of the Los Banos civilian POW camp, and the incredible story of its liberation in 1945. The liberation coincidentally occurred on the same day the US flag was raised on Mount Suribachi, relegating it to back-page news. Over the course of three and half hours, Mr. Hart proceeded to tell me one of the most engaging and unbelievably human stories I ever captured on tape. Learning of the horrors of—and the actions required to survive in—a Japanese prison camp was humbling. It was his story of the camp’s liberation, however, that struck a chord with me, and it’s something I will never forget.
“I looked up, I had no idea what I was looking at,” he said. “I had never even seen a parachute before. It was as if some magical apparition was occurring in front of my eyes. And before I knew it, an American paratrooper was standing in front of me. He must have been 35 feet tall. He was angry and fired up and ready to kill Japanese. . . . This American paratrooper picked me up under his arm. It was a mile and half to the beach, and the entire time he told me, ‘Kid, I’m gonna get you home. Kid, I’m gonna get you home.’”
When 2,000 US civilian POWs who had been imprisoned since 1941 arrived in San Pedro, California, a band was waiting for them. “They had a band on the dock and they were playing the The Star-Spangled Banner,” he said. “I had never heard The Star-Spangled Banner before! We all wept. It was the most beautiful thing I ever heard, and I weep now telling this to you.”
Mr. Hart’s legacy lives on here at The National WWII Museum, both through his oral histories and his generous artifact donation, which allows our visitors to see top-notch examples of weapons used during the war. The 16 donated weapons, part of the Howard and Jean Hart Martial Arms Collection, are on display in The Duchossois Family Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries, the Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries, and The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George Brown Salute to the Home Front.
From a grateful nation: Thank you, Mr. Hart.