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War stories: From Maine to the Pacific, a frogman remembers
DAVID HEWARD — During WWII, any time there was anything involving a lot of explosives, they used to say, "Get Hewie. Get Hewie."
PARIS — David Heward was a Navy SEAL before there was such a thing as Navy SEALs.
SEALs – elite Navy fighters that engage in special operations on sea, air, and land – were not officially organized until 1961. During World War II and the Korean War, units that did the sorts of things SEALs do were called Amphibious Scouts and Raiders and Naval Combat Demolition Units. Often, they were referred to as frogmen. That's what Heward was.
Heward now lives at the Maine Veterans Home in Paris. At age 95, he is clear-headed and articulate, though some details from his war experiences 65 years earlier he is reluctant to talk about.
"I don't want anything put in [this article] that builds me up. There's nothing I did that the other guys didn't do. What I was doing was the same as everybody else. We were at a certain place at a certain time. We did what we had to do and we hope it was the right thing."
Born in 1916 at Yarmouth, Maine, Heward was the middle of three children. After high school, he lived at home and worked in an A&P store and later, in Northern Maine with the Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC].
By 1941, Heward was married and had a good job.
"I was in Newfoundland, working at a construction site on an airfield.
"One Sunday morning, a guy came through the barracks and woke us up. He said, 'Pearl Harbor just got bombed.'"
The next day, Heward was one of a dozen men standing in the company's main office, asking to be sent home so they could join the service.
"I came home, took a few days to be with my wife and folks, then went down to the Navy recruiting station in Portland."
The recruiter discovered that Heward had a permanent deferment from military service because of his construction work at military bases. This did not sit well with Heward.
"I want you to take me off of this permanent deferment or I'm going to Canada and join the Canadian navy," he said.
A few days later a letter arrived saying he was cleared for duty.
"The next morning I was back in the recruiter's office."
After basic training, Heward and a buddy of his, Harold Norman from Oakland, Maine, were left hanging around with nothing to do. They were told it would be two or three months before there would be enough sailors trained to form a new battalion.
"There was a sign on the side of a building that said 'Volunteer for Hazardous Duty'. We went over and talked to them. I said, 'If we signed up for duty with you people, how long before we'd be the hell out of here?'"
"The man said, 'This afternoon or tomorrow morning.' I said, 'Where do I sign?' Harold and I both signed."
They were sent to Norfolk, Virginia, joining about 200 others who had signed up.
"We had a meeting and they began to explain the types of duties we'd be doing. Very dangerous, very hazardous duties. But work that had to be done.
"One day this young officer who was leading our group said, 'Has anybody here ever had anything to do with explosives?'
"I'm looking around and I didn't see anybody [responding], so I faintly put my hand up."
Back in his CCC days, Heward had been on a dynamite crew, blasting ledges and stumps and trees to make emergency roads for fire trails.
"The officer asked me a lot of questions about my experience. He said to me, 'You know more about it than I do.' So they shipped Harold and I right out into another group to start more training.
"We got put into a Naval Combat Demolition Unit. There was Amphibious Scouts and Rangers and there was our group."
Later in the war, Amphibious Scouts and Rangers and Naval Combat Demolition Units would be combined.
Heward served in the Pacific.
"We met a lot of resistance [from the enemy] because we weren't that experienced in what we were supposed to be doing. But we tackled it as best we could. We lost a lot of men, but we kept at it.
"When we had too many casualties, they'd send us back to Hawaii and they'd rebuild the group, doing a little more training, blow a little dust off, then send us out again.
"It was really funny. During the war, anytime there was anything involving a heavy lot of explosives, they used to say, 'Get Hewie. Get Hewie.' That's me.
"I didn't really know anything more than anybody else, but they remembered the day early on how I was the one with dynamite experience. So they associated me with explosives."
On one occasion, some marines radioed for assistance, and Heward was told to take three men and go see what they needed.
The marines were on a beach. Heward and his team got as close as they could in a 36-foot boat, then swam in under fire.
A marine officer explained the situation. Many of the first wave of 36-foot landing crafts had been shot up and disabled and were blocking access to the beach. More boats full of marines could not get in.
"We're getting the crap kicked out of us and they are going to wipe us out if something isn't done," the marine said.
"The officer started to walk around back of me and he stopped. I had on a sort of frock that had a lot of pockets so I could carry all kinds of [blasting] caps and other equipment we needed. He stopped and ripped it right off of me.
"It was full of holes and blood. My whole back was full of shrapnel. I'd been so tense, I hadn't even felt it."
Heward was patched up and stayed with the marines while his men swam out and back, bringing in 40 pound packs of Tetrytol.
The disabled boats couldn't be sunk where they were because they'd block the landing area. They had to be pushed out into deeper water and sunk.
"Because I was hurt, this officer said to me, 'Don't lift anything, we'll lift everything for you.' He brought down three or four marines who would carry the explosives; then I would swim out and place it and wire it where I wanted it.
"We had to blow the boats up with men in them – there was dead all over the place. It gets to you after awhile. You see so much of it."
Heward stops talking, gives his head a single shake, blinks his eyes, and runs a hand sideways across his head.
"But you do your job, what they trained you to do. And that's what I did.
"On that mission, I worked for three days straight so that the second wave of marines could be boated in. I never got a purple heart or anything for it, but that's okay."
After World War II, Heward returned to Maine.
During the Korean War, he was called back into active duty and served for a year and a half. He then returned to Maine to live a quiet life with his wife and son and daughter.