Pearl Harbor hero, 93, returns to the base 75 years after saving lives

Pearl Harbor hero returns

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii -- This time, Mel Heckman was the one who needed help getting to the shore along Pearl Harbor’s battleship row.

“This is it. This is the exact spot where it happened 75 years ago,” Heckman said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was the one giving help.

“We saved as many men as we could,” he said.

At 93, this was Heckman’s wish: To return for the first time with his daughter, grandchildren, even a great grandson, to the place he was standing as Japanese planes attacked.

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Mel Heckman and his family CBS News

“I remember every moment like it happened yesterday,” Heckman said. “When the Japanese came in, the sky was black. There were so many of them.”

Bombs rained down as Heckman was struck by shrapnel in his back. “I saw flames, flames, flames and explosions,” he said.

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The battleships Arizona and Oklahoma were hit right in front of him. The water was on fire.

Heckman helped rescue sailors swimming through the flames.

“They went like this,” Heckman said waiving his arms, “and knocked the flames away.”

A lot of those sailors were 18 or 19 years old. “Kids,” Heckman said, “Like my grandson right there.”

The story had inspired grandson Josh to join the Navy, but this time it had the power he did not expect.

“Being on a ship, I see these people and I can see them with my eye. I couldn’t imagine,” Josh said.

Heckman’s daughter Joanne had also heard the story before, but not like this.

“I can see it happening. I can hear all the, all the bombs and the commotion,” Joanne said.

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Joanne, left, and Josh CBS News

“My grandfather is not only a great American hero. He’s my hero,” said Robert, another grandson.

And he is being hailed as a hero at this week’s commemorations, as is every other surviving Pearl Harbor veteran on this 75th anniversary.

As the number of survivors steadily declines, their nation and their families pledge always to remember.

But the story of Pearl Harbor will never be told as vividly once those who were there can no longer tell it.

Heckman’s family trip to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary commemoration was facilitated by Wish of a Lifetime, a Colorado based organization that helps seniors (especially military veterans) fulfill lifelong dreams. To learn more about the organization, visit http://wishofalifetime.org/

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.