And So It Began . . .

At 17, Melvin M. Heckman joined the service as a Naval Aviation Machinist Mate. In this role, he needed to know everything about every aircraft he might repair or refurbish. After basic training, he chose his first assignment: Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii.

Heckman arrived on July 1, 1941, and lived aboard the USS Worden. He worked near a large runway that spanned the entire one-mile length of Ford Island, refurbishing aircraft in poor condition. By the time the aircraft left the last hangar, they looked brand new and were ready for many more hours of service. His job, called Assembly and Repair (A&R), had him working Monday through Friday, with weekends off except every fourth weekend when he filled in for any needed job.

On December 7, 1941, Heckman was assigned to the Fire Station from 8 AM Sunday to 8 AM Monday. On this infamous day, his duty lasted much longer.

At 7:50 AM, with coffee and donuts in hand, Heckman reported for duty at the Fire Station. He and another man, Prutte, listened to the fire chief provide information in case of a fire, mentioning they must go to the flight line for all flight operations in case of a problem. Shortly thereafter, an unrecognizable plane came in low and cut an antenna wire to the radio station, severing all communications from the South Pacific fleet to the mainland. The pilot then dropped a bomb on hangar #8, where ammunition and high-octane aviation fuel were stored.

I had no idea what the big red circle on each wing meant until Prutte raised his arm and swore at the Japanese pilot. That was the first sign and the first words spoken during World War II. It happened in seconds, the noise, the closeness of the plane, only 50 feet above us.”

For some reason, an officer from the Pacific Fleet wanted an Admiral’s inspection at Pearl Harbor the week of December 7th, so every ship in the fleet was there. All of them were powered by oil burners that required activation almost 24 hours before moving the ship. That day, all burners were shut down, and all hatches were opened to air out the vessels. Most ships were paralyzed in their berths.

“The fire chief told me that if there was a fire, my job was to grab onto the back rail of the fire truck, stand on the platform, and hold on. He would later tell me what to do. As soon as that first plane came over, he needn’t say another word. The engine started, and we headed fast towards the hangar that was on fire.

Halfway to the hangar, a Japanese airplane zeroed in behind us. I saw the highway begin to bubble like boiling water. The plane was strafing, shooting a 7.7-millimeter machine gun on the road coming towards us. I could see his face; he was so close. The plane dropped a bomb, but we outran it.

The next bomb dropped was 20 feet short. All of us were hit with shrapnel. I didn’t hear the bomb go off but felt the heat and the energy it discharged. Any open skin, like the back of your neck, hands, and arms, was charred. Everyone was peppered with tar from the highway, which hit our skin. We looked as if sprinkled with pepper.

After the attack, I learned that every Japanese pilot had a detailed map with all significant targets marked.

We kept going and pulled down by the bay to start drawing water. When we attempted to suction water, we learned the valve directly under the chief’s seat had been hit. All suction was gone.

The chief alerted us that we had only 250 gallons of water on the truck and hose. There’s not much we can do with that when everything around us is on fire or exploding, including the hangar.”

“Because of the extensive damage, no aircraft would take off or land until 2-3 PM that afternoon. The chief dropped me and Prutte off at the end of the island, which had not yet been hit.

The Arizona was moored directly across from where we were released. From there, a short distance from Ford Island berths, we saw Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and others. For a time, and on this end of the island, little was going on.

Within a few minutes, I saw the entire sky open up with hundreds of Japanese planes. Their bulls-eye was the battleships on Battleship Row. First, a high-altitude bomber targeted the Arizona. The well-trained pilot sent his armor-piercing bomb into the forward deck, exploding the magazine—the ammo dump.

At about the same time, several torpedo planes came over at water level and let their torpedoes go. The timing was perfect; as the magazine exploded, the torpedoes simultaneously detonated. I saw the entire ship rise out of the water. To this day, I don’t know whether the water left the ship or the ship left the water. The entire Arizona was in mid-air, and within a matter of seconds, it broke in half and sank where she is today, taking with her 1,177 men.

Only the men topside escaped. They were blown off the ship into the water.

When Arizona exploded, the concussion was so great that if it had not been for a palm tree and Prutte, I don’t think I would have made it. The shock wave was over 100 miles an hour. Holding tightly onto the palm tree was all we could do to prevent being blown away.

Arizona survivors in the water cried out for aid. One man shouted, ‘Help!’ I grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the water. Everything below his belly was gone. I held him for a few seconds. He passed away in my arms. I let him slip back into the water and helped others.

We seemed practically defenseless. I thought there would be a Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and the Island of Oahu because all I could see was destruction and burning ships, and none of us knew what was next. I saw the Oklahoma capsize, taking with her 460 men.”

When everything quieted, the chief returned and asked us to ride back to the station to repair the fire truck. First, I went back to my ship and my barracks. There was nothing left. Not one mattress. Lockers were opened and empty. I went down the main deck to the mess hall. All the missing mattresses were on the tables with injured men lying on them, many worse off than I was.

Because of my injuries, I asked a doctor I knew for help. He told me to go to the swimming pool; the chlorine water would clean my wounds and help heal my skin. Then drink some of the water to prevent dehydration.

Later, I returned to the fire station for a week instead of a day. Everyone spent time cleaning up the island. The dead needed tending. Due to the heat, their bodies were decomposing quickly. Large trenches were dug, and the men’s remains were buried in a mass grave. Some ships were still on fire, too large to put out. The Arizona burned for two months. After a few weeks and hospitalization for my wounds, I went back to the A&R station even though there were no planes to repair. Instead, the men prepared for war.”

Audiences must understand what Mel Heckman experienced and has shared with us. Think about the historical context and the descriptive imagery this 17-year-old man experienced. Attempt to visualize the impactful effects this day had on his life. Imagine being the person who saw the first strike of the Japanese on the communications antenna and being part of the very beginning of US involvement in World War II. He watched the Arizona and Oklahoma collectively take 1,647 men to their deaths. Imagine how quickly he grew up, realizing, “He wasn’t in Kansas anymore.”

Mel said of his experience, “I would like my story passed from one generation to the next so children never forget World War II.”


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