You may never have heard of the Hansen brothers, but twins Paul and Leslie own the distinction of being the only twins to earn the Navy Cross. In fact, they fought side-by-side when they accomplished the feat.
On 26 December 1943, the First Marine Division poured onto the beaches of Cape Gloucester, New Britain. As the Marines worked their way into the jungle, the amtraks (amphibious tractors) of the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion ferried in their ammunition and equipment. One of the first amtraks ashore was commanded by 23-year-old Philadelphia native Sgt. Robert J. Oswald Jr., with Pfc. Paul Hansen at the wheel and Pfc. Leslie Hansen manning a machinegun (both 20, from Bergen, N.Y.).
When heavy fire from Japanese pillboxes halted the Marine assault force attempting to capture the island’s airport, Oswald’s crew volunteered to destroy the enemy position. The job of charging the pillbox was dangerous enough, but onboard were tons of fuzes and 37-mm shells. Scores of enemy soldiers would be firing at a slow-moving, unarmored amphibious tractor loaded with explosives. Armed with a 50-cal. and a .30-cal. machine gun, packing a ton of guts, Sgt. Oswald and the hard-charging Hansen brothers drove straight into the enemy nest.
They quickly smashed through a line of Japanese soldiers then maneuvered through the dense rainforest towards the pillbox. Paul threaded his way through the swamps and trees, intending to crush the target, but just five yards from their objective, the vehicle became wedged between two enormous trees while making its final turn. The Japanese rushed the stalled vehicle and targeted the exposed American gunners as Paul worked the controls to free the amtrak. Oswald and Leslie cut down dozens of assaulting soldiers, but a few managed to evade the withering fire to climb the amtrak’s ten-foot sides and engage the gunners in hand-to-hand combat.
Inside the driver’s compartment, Paul was pulling double duty: he had to abandon the controls to pop out of his armored hatch with a pistol, killing the Japanese trying to climb the front of his vehicle before climbing back in to shake his amtrak free. Three enemy grenades landed inside of the amtrak’s cargo hold, but miraculously, none exploded. Leslie lost his balance during the fray and fell over the side, managing to take his foe with him. Finally free of the trees, Paul drove onto the pillbox and leveled it, killing or entombing its defenders and enabling the Marines to drive on to the airport.
Some 68 Japanese soldiers lay dead in the amtrak’s wake. His brother was dead, Sgt. Oswald was mortally wounded by sniper fire, but Paul drove on, supporting the Marines’ assault on additional fortifications before returning to friendly lines. For their heroic actions on their nearly suicidal mission, Oswald and the Hansen brothers each earned the Navy Cross.
Three more Hansen brothers served during World War II: Alfred also joined the Marines and the 22-year-old corporal was killed in action on little-known Rendova Island (in the Solomons) on 2 July 1943. Irving was an Army lieutenant in the Pacific theater while Pfc. Christian (also Army) fought in Europe.