Gordon Hewitt, WWII Naval Pharmacist

U.S. Naval Pharmacist enlisted after attack on Pearl Harbor

By Tamara Stevens
Special to Emmet County

 

 


Gordon Hewitt

There is a marble monument in the city of Clio, just north of Flint. The names of 14 young men are carved into the monument. One of those names is Gordon “Gordy” Hewitt. His sister, Luella, provided the funding for the monument commemorating the 14 sons of Clio who bravely went off to battle in World War II.

“We all knew each other,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt and two of his closest buddies took the day off from school and marched down to the recruitment office on Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, to sign up for duty. One of the families of the 14 men from Clio had a son who was stationed in Pearl Harbor and was killed during the attack. Hewitt was good friends with the deceased soldier’s brother.

“His family was so upset,” said Hewitt, now of Petoskey.

At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hewitt was attending Ferris State University, studying to be a pharmacist. He had graduated from Clio High School in 1938. The Navy assigned Hewitt his pharmacist apprentice papers and attached him to the U.S. Navy Mobile Hospital No. 5 (5th Fleet Mobile Hospital PT Board Ron 12). He spent two years in the South Pacific, from 1942-1944, came back to the U.S., then went back to the South Pacific for two more years.

At 93 years old, Hewitt’s memory of specific dates and some details are fading a bit, but he still remembers well many of the events and the men he served with during the war.

Caring for the wounded

After signing up for the Navy, Hewitt was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training and Hospital Corp School in Chicago. After two months of training, he was stationed in New York. From there, he and other men took a train to San Francisco, California, where they boarded ships and were transported to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia in the South Pacific Ocean.

“We were the first unit that took patients from Guadalcanal,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt recalls that at one point during the war, he took care of Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr., (commonly referred to as “Bill” or Bull” Halsey), who was an American Fleet Admiral in the United States Navy. Halsey commanded the South Pacific area during the early stages of the Pacific War against Japan. Later he was commander of the Third Fleet through the duration of many battles.

“He had a boil on his leg,” Hewitt remembers of his patient, the Admiral, who he cared for during a three-day hospital stay. “We didn’t have antibiotics then.”

As a pharmacist in the Navy, Hewitt wasn’t necessarily trained or expected to perform battle duties, but sometimes a shortage of hands required everyone to pitch in. While in New Caledonia, in the port of Baie de Magenta, Hewitt was needed outside of the pharmacy.

“They needed me to unload shells,” Hewitt said. “I operated a power wench. I got no sleep for two days, just unloaded ammunition.”

It was in Noumea that Hewitt and other U.S. units set up the first base hospital.

Serving in the mobile hospital unit, Hewitt moved around quite a bit during WWII. He served in Western Samoa in the Samoan Islands. He was stationed in Pearl Harbor, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, New Caledonia, and Lyte Gulf, among others.

In Lyte Gulf in Manilla, Phillipines, he was head of the medical detachment in Ron 12 at Guam and Samoa, where the primary duty of his unit was to evacuate the wounded to hospital ships. Hospital ships including the Trynon, Rixey Relief, Argon, Vincent, and Solace were used for transporting as many as 400 wounded soldiers at a time.

“Tarawa was where the troops got off the ships and the water was too deep and many of them drown,” Hewitt said.

When he wasn’t on duty, Hewitt caught and provided fresh fish for more than 50 sailors in New Caledonia, their only fresh meat for months.

“I caught fish by trolling from an LCVP (Higgins Boat),” Hewitt said. “The Admiral let me take the yacht out to fish. I would come back with a boat load of big fish, lake trout, tuna.” Hewitt has several black and white photos of himself with fish as big as he was.

After serving in the Navy for two years, Hewitt returned to the United States. He made chief pharmacist on the Chelsea Naval Hospital base in Boston, but there were too many chiefs on the base, so he went out again for two more years.

While in the South Pacific, Hewitt saw alligators, snakes, spiders and monkeys.

“They brought back loads of monkeys to the U.S. to use in researching the flu shot,” Hewitt said. “And eagles, we saw a lot of eagles.”

Hewitt holds his hand out with his fingers spread far apart to illustrate the size of the spiders that inhabited most of the islands. The spiders would leave their webbing all over the flap of his tent.

“We’d shoot spiders with our carbines,” Hewitt said.

He also saw a guillotine, and actually saw it being used for two beheadings, he said. In New Caledonia, the official form of capital punishment was beheading. Hewitt watched, along with more than 1,000 spectators, while two men were administered their “punishment” for their crimes. Hewitt said one was a policeman, and the other criminal had shot and killed a Navy man.

Helping the locals

Hewitt often accompanied a chaplain who took him to visit Japanese villages. With his pharmacy training, he went to see if he could help any of the villagers with medications, he said.

“It was 100-plus degrees in the South Pacific,” Hewitt said. “They were building runways, and when they worked on the rock areas, they chased out big boa constrictors. They would come into our tents at night. The pythons would come in and curl up around our bunk legs. We’d throw rocks at them in the morning to get them to leave.”

He still remembers the sight of Lyte Gulf in the Phillipines with its long, white sand beach.  “It was just beautiful,” he said.

Hewitt saw the beach from an anti-aircraft (PT) boat that he would ride along on, which had nothing to do with operations, he said.

“We’d cut in between the ships,” Hewitt said of his ride-alongs.

Contrasting with the beautiful beaches he saw, Hewitt said the worst thing he saw during the war were all the bodies. Arms, legs missing – it was a terrible sight, he said.

It was while he was stationed in the Phillipines that Hewitt and the other men in their unit chipped in and built a church for the villagers.

“We cut all the palm leaves and wove them together for the walls,” Hewitt said. He has a black and white photo of himself and several of his unit standing outside the palm church.

He also remembers setting up a Naval dispensary in San Mateo, south of San Francisco. When he returned to the U.S. after his second tour of duty, Hewitt came home in style, he said, riding on a yacht. The AGP-2 Hilo, Ex. PF-58 yacht named “Caroline.” The trip took 40 days.

Family life

Prior to leaving the U.S. on his first tour of duty, Hewitt married Doris, a young lady he met while attending Ferris State University. He and his two closest buddies had met three ladies who were attending Central Michigan University. They all married each other and stayed close friends for many years.

While Hewitt was serving in the Navy, Doris gave birth to their first son, David, and raised him on her own. Hewitt didn’t see his son for a year-and-a-half after he was born.

Once he had returned to the U.S., Hewitt returned to Michigan and finished his pharmacy education at Ferris State University. He played a lot of baseball while in college as a pitcher, and met many players who went on to illustrious careers. Hewitt graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy in 1951.

He interviewed at quite a few companies and accepted a job at Eli Lily in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a representative of Eli Lily, Hewitt called on physicians from West Branch to Ste. Sault Marie, Michigan. He worked in the Wyandott area, as well as Allen Park for six months, before he was transferred to Petoskey. The Hewitts moved to Petoskey in October 1949.

The Hewitts have three sons: David, Ron, and Alan; three grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Like all proud parents, Hewitt and his wife talk more about their children and their accomplishments than their own. Their son Ron was in Spain during Vietnam on a Naval base and lives in Harbor Springs. David served in the military as well, and now lives in Clio. Alan, the youngest, played in a band in high school at Petoskey, and went on to follow a musical career. Currently, he plays the keyboard for the Moody Blues band and lives in Palm Springs, Calif.

When he wasn’t working, Hewitt spent many years fishing the waters of Little Traverse Bay. Often he would give his catch to the physicians he called on. Hewitt retired in 1982 at 62 years old. Then he was able to spend more hours fishing. After receiving two new knees, two new hips, and three eye surgeries, Hewitt no longer goes fishing. But he laughs still about the amount of big fish he caught while in the South Pacific.

Military facts: Long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was busily engaged in plans and problems involved in processing personnel, expanding physical and material facilities, and stockpiling supplies for the Medical Department of the Navy to meet the needs of war, should it involve the U.S.

Naval hospital and hospital ships in commission in 1941 was greatly expanded and ultimately included more than 20 hospital ships. Receiving ships, supply ships, guard ships, ambulance boats and transports, landing ship tanks (casualty evacuation ships), and rescue ships were all part of the Navy’s Mobile Hospital and Hospital ship operations.

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