SHERIDAN — Melvin Heckman, a World War II veteran who lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor and worked locally to aid veterans and promote historical awareness, died last week at Mountain View Living Center at Sheridan Veterans Affairs Health Care System. He was 94.
Joanne Ericksen, one of Heckman’s daughters, said her father’s time in the Navy was a source of pride, and he was eager to share it.
“He loved to tell those stories,” Ericksen said. “One of my sons went on to join the Navy, and it was because of his grandpa’s stories.”
Heckman enlisted in the Navy at a young age.
He was 17 when he was assigned to Ford Island, in Pearl Harbor Bay, as an aviation machinist.
He had taken over a firefighter shift on the morning of December 7, 1941, when he saw Japanese planes roar over the firehouse and destroy a nearby hanger. Heckman and the other men in the firehouse were rushing toward the burning hanger in a firetruck when a bomb landed 20 feet from them. Heckman was burned and caught shrapnel in his back but persisted. He watched as Japanese bombers sunk the USS Arizona and worked with other firefighters to pull men from the wreckage.
Heckman was awarded a Purple Heart for his service that day.
After the attack, Heckman was transferred to Palmyra, an atoll about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii where the Navy built a refueling base. Heckman worked as an aircraft machinist repairing planes returning from the Pacific theatre. One day, he was assigned to escort visiting Naval officers around the island as they attended meetings, and that evening he sat down on a railroad tie while waiting for his charges to finish a meeting and struck up a conversation with an officer standing nearby. The officer asked Heckman if he was content as a machinist, and Heckman admitted that he wanted to be a pilot.
When he received orders to transfer to Pensacola, Florida, for flight school a month later, Heckman realized he had been talking to Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet.
At Pensacola, Heckman completed Officer’s Candidate School and Flight School and graduated a fighter pilot. Shortly after he completed his training, though, Japan surrendered, and the war was over.
After leaving the Navy, Heckman ran an insurance company in Philadelphia and managed a ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming, before retiring to Sheridan in the early 1990s. But Ericksen said her father kept himself busy, even in retirement. He volunteered with the local Veteran’s Affairs chapter and the Sheridan chapter of Disabled American Veterans. Heckman was also the chairman of the Pearl Harbor Survivors organization in Wyoming and helped create the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors organization.
“He was very proud that he witnessed and survived Pearl Harbor; it was very important to him that nobody forget what happened,” Ericksen said.
Two years ago, Ericksen arrived for a visit and her father declared that they were going to write a book. The two spent the next six weeks compiling Heckman’ experiences and memories into a 42-page account of his time in the Navy.
“He remembered all the details and the names of people like it just happened,” Ericksen recalled.
At the end of every day, Ericksen would send pages to her wife, Margie, for revisions, and she and her father would make the changes and start again the next day.
“That was so much fun,” Ericksen said. “He told me all of these stories I hadn’t heard before.”
The book was published in 2016 as, “The Story of Melvin M. Heckman While in the Navy During World War II” by The Business Center in Sheridan.
Locally, Heckman’s work has left an impact.
Ericksen said Sheridan’s DAV post has announced it plans to name its chapter in Heckman’s honor, in recognition of his contributions to the group.
Heckman was also responsible for a proclamation, signed by Gov. Matt Mead last year, to have Dec. 7 declared Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in Wyoming.
“He made sure it got into every single newspaper in Wyoming and contacted most of the radio stations,” Ericksen said. “And he reached out to all of the schools to make sure the teachers would teach it.”
All of Heckman’s children also promised him they would push a similar proclamation in their home states.
“We all have copies of the governor’s proclamation and we’re going to work on it,” Ericksen said.
In these ways, Heckman, who worked in life to keep history evident, leaves a visible, enduring legacy.