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Former Sheriff cheated death in war and jail

By Tom Kane |
updated: 6/11/2013 4:37 PM

Some would call it luck, others, divine providence, but whatever the philosophical view, H.B. Tanner should have been dead long ago.

He is 91 and living out his retirement in Harrisburg.

The recipient of three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts from the Army, back in his early 1920s, Tanner was fighting to recapture the Phillippines when a Japanese mortar round landed between his legs.

It was a dud round.

Later, while Saline County Sheriff, he fought off two escaping inmates at the county jail. He suffered a horrible beating to his head. But he had a snub-nosed .38 in his pocket and shot his assailants. Tanner said the doctor said that had he received one more lick he would have died.

The photo of the bloodied sheriff and the story of the attempted escape was circulated nationally by the wire services.
Tanner received letters from as far away as Los Angeles congratulating him on his success in stopping the jail break.

"The one I shot in the stomach died a few years later from possible complications from his wound, but he initially recovered," said Tanner. "The other one, I just grazed his head and he recovered."

Tanner is a modest man. He does't brag, he just tells his stories with an ability acquired by practice. He checked with his son, Ruane Tanner, Anna, before giving permission to print his story of the jail break.

Tanner enlisted right out of high school and spent nine years with the Army but did not have to go to Korea, even though ordered to go. He was based at Ft. Sheridan as an active reservist at the time. His enlistment was almost up and the Army didn't send him overseas again.

One of his three Bronze Stars from the Phillippines was delayed.

He received it on May 10, 2013.

There had been a fire at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis and all his records had been lost.

The award finally caught up with him this year.

Tanner worked as an explosives expert in the Phillippines and attained the rank of master sergeant. He refused all offers of officer candidate school both during his first enlistment and later during his reserve career.

In the Phillippines he blew up bunkers and other enemy fortifications. He made some good friends among the Filipino population, land owners who after the war offered him a plantation if he would come back and run it.

"I thought about it, but I decided to turn them down," he said.

After leaving the service in the 1950s Tanner got into the funeral business in Eldorado. His partner was an old friend from high school and they operated Bean and Tanner Funeral Home.

He was elected Saline County Sheriff in 1958 and served until 1962.

He was a Democrat from his youth but when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980 he switched to the Republican party.

"The Democrats no longer reflected my values," he said.

Later he became a CPA and later still, a real estate broker. He has since let his licenses expire and now is retired.

"I have had trouble with my left eye since the beating at the jail. The eye still bothers me today, but that is what public service is all about."

Tanner knows a lot about public service. He served a two year term as representative to the Illinois House in Springfield. He later set up the Shawnee Development Company which operated for eight years training people for employment. He provided training for coal miners, truck drivers, secretaries and others.

"I have no more idea than a billy goat why I chose public service for a career," he said.

"I had some hard times between my term as sheriff and my term in the House. I lost half of my right lung," he said.

He was a smoker who went back to his pipe after the surgery.

"I finally quit tobacco after my two-year-old granddaughter said I stunk,” he said.

Tanner received a regimental marksmanship award in the Army before he shipped out to the Phillippines. He said that last year he shot two dear, one in the head, one in the neck.

Whatever Tanner's reason for choosing public service, it was fortunate for Saline County, the state of Illinois and this nation that he did.

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