On December 7th, 2016, one of the few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors made his way back to the site of the Japanese bombing for the first time since 1941. The 93-year-old man surrounded himself with family and embarked on a poignant journey through time, back to the moment of the first sign of war in the peaceful tropical paradise of Oahu’s harbor.
When the Japanese first surprised Oahu with bombers, Mel Heckman was a fireman who had been at the harbor for six months, working at the Ford Island Naval Station on Battleship Row. Though he may not have manned weaponry to fight back against the incoming fighters, the 18-year-old Heckman earned a Purple Heart and plenty of praise for his actions during the attack.
Fallen Vessels and Saved Lives
Bomb shrapnel was abundant and, in the thick of battle, was almost impossible to avoid. With metal shards in his back, Heckman kept himself standing, and because of his perseverance, several more soldiers survived than otherwise would have.
Amidst the madness of explosions and panic, Heckman was there when the Arizona and Oklahoma were struck. With their ships ablaze and sinking to the bottom of the harbor, those who survived the initial bombings were left in the burning water with little more than their prayers to keep them safe. With Mel Heckman nearby, their prayers were answered.
During his 75th-anniversary return, Heckman recounted his heroics of that day, though the humble hero felt he was just doing his job. Soldiers from the stricken battleships could be seen swimming through flames on the water’s surface and Heckman and his crew reacted, saving sailors he simply described as “kids.”
An Honor for a Hero
Having survived the bombings and kept to his duty despite injuries, Heckman was awarded with a Purple Heart, but even that may have paled in comparison to the praise he received on his return to Pearl Harbor 75 years later.
Reaching the 75-year milestone wasn’t something Heckman could share with many of his fellow servicemen. A member of the Wyoming Chapter # 1 of Pearl Harbor Survivors, Heckman is one of only two remaining survivors of the attack in his chapter. Of the survivors as a whole, only around 2,000 are left.
After the Attack
Having survived the attack on the harbor, Heckman went on to attend officer candidate school and trained at the Naval Air Training Center in Pensacola, Florida. By 1944, he had earned his wings and spent the next year fighting in the war that the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into. Shortly after the war ended, the decorated sailor left the Navy in 1946 to enjoy civilian life.
Chronicling the Heroes of Pearl Harbor
Along with Heckman, thousands of heroes were made on that day of infamy. Every sailor, soldier, and Marine who fought there earned his right to be memorialized at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor. For more stories like Heckman’s, and to journey back in time to December 7th, 1941 through interactive exhibits, real wartime artifacts, and World War II battleships, Pearl Harbor is a must-see destination.