One of our last Pearl Harbor survivors: ‘I dream about it’
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org December 6, 2011 5:46PM
A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, George Hettinger also survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hettinger was stationed on the USS Utah. He was photographed at his home in Aurora on Tuesday, December 6, 2011. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 8, 2012 8:02AM
I am fascinated by the old veteran’s eyes.
They are, after all, the window to the soul. And as I look intently into the eyes of George Hettinger, I am trying so hard to see history, as well.
The story is all there — and stored in vivid detail — behind those fading blue irises.
Hettinger’s personal tale of the bombing of Pearl Harbor comes out haltingly, in a whisper. It is hard to understand, even as I lean closer and concentrate on the aged face that still resembles the tall dark and exceedingly handsome sailor he once was.
There are parts of his story — and its remarkable place in history — that come through clearly.
“I went swimming.”
“I think about it.”
“I dream about it.”
“Nine-inch shells were dropping everywhere.”
“(Jack Vaessen) was trapped in the hull ... we had to cut him out.”
These are compelling quotes — important quotes uttered not so easily by a 93-year-old North Aurora man who is one of the last remaining Pearl Harbor survivors from the Fox Valley.
But this story could not be written without a cheat sheet. The literary aid I must rely on was put together by George’s two sons, George Jr. and Greg, in 2004, when their father’s health was still good. Even then, says Greg, it took six months to extract from him the details of that Sunday morning in 1941.
George Hettinger has always been a quiet man: According to family, he said little about his experiences — serving in both World War II and Korea — until he turned 70. And Pearl Harbor had to be coaxed from him because of his reluctance to talk about it.
Seventy years ago today, Hettinger, a young North Aurora farm boy who enlisted in the Navy in 1938, was an electrician on board the USS Utah — an old World War I battleship used for training — when one of the first of those Japanese torpedoes hit the ship port-side.
Down in his bunk room, the young seaman’s first thought was that ammunition had gone off. But very soon word came they were under attack — and the alarm began to sound. As Hettinger rushed to replace a blown fuse, a second alarm went off — and orders spread quickly to abandon ship.
Hettinger thought about going to his locker to grab his West Aurora High School ring — until he saw smoke filling the compartment. “As I started down the side of the ship it did not seem like I was getting any closer to the water. I think that as I was going down the side ... the ship was rolling over.”
Within minutes the USS Utah had, indeed, toppled completely, trapping dozens of men below. (Six officers and 52 enlisted men lost their lives on the Utah.) “When I finally go into the water, my hands and feet were going like crazy ... shrapnel started falling ... There was another guy ... struggling in the water below me, hollering that he couldn’t swim. I went back to help this guy out.”
Eventually rescued by another ship, the survivors took cover on land in a sewer line trench; and had a “front row seat of the remaining attack.” “As we watched and saw Jap planes get hit, boy, would we yell.”
Hettinger doesn’t recall how long he was in those trenches, but after things became less chaotic, he helped put cartridges in the belts of the machine guns. “It was when we started walking around that we first realized all the devastation. Everything was burnt and black.”
“The night of Dec. 7, planes came in and somebody opened fire. The tracers from the shooting was a sight to see. You never saw a 4th of July like that. Then the shrapnel starting falling ... Later on they gave a card to send home to our folks to let them know we were OK. My card took a month ... some never arrived.”
Hettinger’s next assignment was on the bomb-damaged USS Honolulu. “When they started bringing out the ammunition, you should have seen how twisted and bent everything was. It’s a wonder nothing went off. All of us from the Utah slept topside for a couple weeks. We did not want to go down below.”
He stayed on board the Honolulu after its repair until September 1943, when Hettinger — who eventually became a chief petty officer — was transferred to school in Washington, D.C.
His story is being told publicly for the first time, in part, because there is urgency. Only 18 months ago, he was gardening, snow plowing his own driveway and cutting his grass. Two bouts of pneumonia changed all that: Now he relies on a full-time caregiver — and a steady supply of oxygen to keep his brain from shutting down.
Still, that mind remains plenty sharp, which is evident when, asked a question about Pearl Harbor, you can see his face physically change as he reaches back into that vast warehouse of stories.
He stares into the distance. There is a pause. Suddenly, the eyes, fading with time, seem more luminous, more active. He looks back at me — and they open just a little wider.