In honor of Veterans Day, we've put together several stories about our local World War II veterans that will be broadcast throughout the day. Here's News Director Leslie Stratmoen with one of those reports, on U.S. Navy Veteran Mel Heckman of Sheridan.
As people across the country honor veterans today, U.S. Navy Veteran Mel Heckman of Sheridan wants veterans to think of each other. He wants veterans to be dedicated to helping other veterans, especially those who can’t help themselves.
This is a man who is 90 years old and a veteran of World War II. He was at Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and can attest that the war started at exactly ten to 8, when a Japanese plane flew over and clipped the antennae of the radio tower knocking out communications in the South Pacific to stateside.
That same plane then dropped a bomb on the only hangar on Ford Island where he was, that stored fuel and ammunition. He was on fire duty that day, he said, so hopped on a fire truck with others to put out the hangar fire.
Though they made it through the gunfire, their efforts were stopped because shrapnel blew the truck’s suction valve. So they headed to the other side of the island. That was right alongside the water where the Arizona was moored.
It was at that moment, he said, that a high altitude bomber came over and the bomb hit the main deck of the battleship, and was armor piercing, so went right down and hit the magazine. When the ship exploded, he said he saw the Arizona come out of the water and hang in mid-air for a fraction of a second before breaking in two, and dropping down in an L-shape.
The concussion from the blast was so great, he said, that he and others on land had to grab onto palm trees to hold on for dear life. Following the blast, they stayed there and helped pull men out of the water.
He doesn’t know how many he helped, and doesn’t think his efforts were heroic. He was just doing his job, like so many other soldiers.
He’d been burned that day on his back and neck from flying, burning tar, but his injuries were minimal, he said. So he did what the doctor ordered. He jumped into the base swimming pool to cool off and let the chlorine serve as a disinfectant.
He was 18 at the time and had only been in the service for six months, so that was just the beginning. He went on to serve for five years and was a U.S. Naval Officer Ensign when separated.
During his service, he’d learned to be an aviation mechanic and pilot, so the Navy for him was just as he’d hoped, a great school and exciting adventure for a farm boy from Pennsylvania.
It was that same thrill he got from his service days that brought him to Wyoming. He was in his 40s and had hit a lull in his life and not feeling well when a doctor said it was the adrenal rush he found during his service days he was missing and told him he’d get the same thrill from riding buckin’ broncs. So, once again, he took his doctor’s orders, and moved to Buffalo and bought a ranch.
But he’s never forgotten how lucky he was. He’s had a long, full life, he said, married first to Hazel and having three children, then May after Hazel died, who’s still with him today.
He spends his time now raising money and awareness for veterans and their needs, as the State Chairman of Pearl Harbor Survivors. He’s one of only five left in the state, so is working tirelessly to make sure we never forget, that some, gave all.