Mel Heckman, 89, of Sheridan, WY is one of the few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors. Mel joined the Navy at the age of 18, and just a few short months later, he was stationed in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attacks. When Mel enlisted, he was initially appointed to serve as an aviation mechanic. However, on the morning of December 7th, 1941, Mel was approached by his superior and told he would be moved to the position of a firefighter. Not more than a few minutes after arriving at the fire station, Mel recalls seeing a plane flying extremely low over the firehouse. Mel had to duck inside because he thought the propellers were going to clip the roof. This plane would soon drop one of the first bombs on Pearl Harbor, on an airplane hangar a few hundred yards from the firehouse. Mel spent the rest of that day clinging to the back of a fire truck as they worked to extinguish the numerous fires around the base. Following the attacks, Mel spent 2 weeks in the hospital recovering from injuries and would continue to serve in the Navy for 6 more years.
Today, Mel is the President of the Wyoming Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and is a highly respected and selfless man. Following his service, Mel dedicated most of his life to educating youth about the significance of WWII and to raising his family. Mel continues to speak at schools and with community organizations in order to encourage educators to introduce WWII history in the classroom.
In his personal life, a number of struggles have made it difficult for Mel to get back to Pearl Harbor. In 1989, Mel’s son and wife were both diagnosed with cancer. He dedicated a great deal of time to caring for them, but ended up losing both of them only three months apart. Mel took his son’s children under his wing, and has developed a very special relationship with them. Because of this and other struggles, Mel has not been back to Pearl Harbor since the attacks, and dreams of being able to go back to commemorate the men that were lost that day.
For Mel, it would be a dream to experience these sites with two of his grandsons; one who is in the Army and the other who is the son of Mel’s deceased son. Mel, along with two of his grandsons and other members of his family, will be making the trip back to Pearl Harbor in December of 2013 to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the attacks. The Heckman family will be spending 10 days in Hawaii experiencing the sites, and visiting the USS Arizona Memorial. Mel’s excitement is through the roof, and members of his family have commented on how much his energy and health is already improving, just with the thought of the trip. The Heckman’s are truly looking forward to this incredible trip, and cannot wait to share this special time with Mel.
Mel says “I was part of the history, and it was important for me to be there for the 75th Anniversary of the attack. It was a necessary trip. A worthwhile trip. I was honored to have the opportunity to meet all of the soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guard, all of the young people… and we don’t have a thing to be afraid of because all of these young people have it in command. My children, grandchildren, great grandchildren… it was amazing having everyone there. I wanted to pass this history along to my grandchildren and great grandchildren… so everybody knows what happened at Pearl Harbor. It’s almost impossible to say thank you for all of the preparation that went into my wish. For me, Charlene, my family… all of the expenses and coordination. I would like to express my thanks to the Wish of a Lifetime organization. At 93, you don’t operate the same way that you used to. Having someone there to coordinate the wish, develop an itinerary, and lead the family was very important. Thank you. Your encouragement and guidance was so much appreciated. This was wonderful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please express my feelings to everyone in the organization. I couldn’t have done it without Wish of a Lifetime.”