A few weeks ago at Boyd Place in Bangor, I was privileged to meet 88-year-old Don Hayner.
Don served in three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. That alone makes his story unusual. The fact that he came through all three wars uninjured is even more remarkable, especially since he survived the sinking of an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific.
Now partially blind, Don has lost a great deal of his independence. Nevertheless, this career military man displays no restlessness or self-pity. His attitude in conversation is strikingly peaceful — even happy. How does someone come through three wars and find such serene grace in old age? I was curious to hear some of his story.
In February 1941, ready to get out and see the world, Don enlisted in the Navy at age 17.
“This was going to be my career,” he said.
Little did he know how life would change 10 months later. Don was on his way to the mess deck for coffee one morning when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He ran back to his quarters to report the news: “Get up! We’re at war!”
Don was a ship fitter, which required welding, plumbing and sheet-metal work. It also meant damage control during battle.
“If anything went wrong, the first call is to the ship fitter.” He served on the brand-new aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which sailed from Norfolk, Va., to the South Pacific by way of the Panama Canal.
The Hornet executed Gen. James Doolittle’s raid and fought in the Battle of Midway, where they lost an entire torpedo squad. In October 1942, the ship was attacked in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
“I saw five torpedo hits, couldn’t count the bomb hits, and there were two suicide planes followed by fires.” Everyone was repairing holes and fighting fires as the bombs continued to fall. At one point, a torpedo knocked out the ship’s power and they lost pressure to the fire hoses. The “abandon ship” order was called.
Don found his way to the side of the ship and started to climb down a long, knotted rope to the water. I pictured a frantic, crowded exodus like on the Titanic, but the strangest thing, Don said, was that he was all alone on the rope. He went into the sea and started swimming.
“I saw no one. I was all alone in the South Pacific, looked back and saw my home burning and sinking, along with everything I owned.
“It was eerie,” he said.
It was an hour before he came upon a life raft with other men, faces smeared and hair matted with oil. Later, they were picked up by a U.S. destroyer.
Survivors were brought to an island called New Caledonia to await reassignment.
“I had no shoes or socks, one pair of trousers, one shirt. That’s it,” Don said. “They put up tents and turned us loose on the island with sea rations and coffee.”
Don returned to work on the battleship USS Iowa, which saw 12 more naval battles before the war ended.
Three years of civilian life left Don restless, so in 1949 he re-enlisted, not long before the onset of the Korean War. During the Korean War, Don was deep-sea diving for a while as part of an underwater demolition team. Then he volunteered for submarine duty. His service began on the old WWII “pig boats” that were “a little rough” — cramped, no showers, and the coffee tasted of diesel fuel. Later he moved to a nuclear-powered sub that was luxurious in comparison. After the war, Don returned to the States where he worked as a Navy instructor and a recruiter. After 21 years of service he retired, but it didn’t last long.
Fourteen months after retiring, Don was called back into submarine service for the Vietnam War.
Since Korea and Vietnam were land wars and Don was a Navy man, he didn’t see the kind of direct engagement that he had seen in World War II, but life was constantly filled with action and work to be done.
“You miss it,” he said simply.
He also misses the independence of heading out on his own in a pickup truck with a canoe on top to go camping, hunting and fishing. But Don is mostly grateful to be alive, to be healthy and to have only partial and not complete vision loss. He enjoys his children and grandchildren, loves books on tape and painstakingly works on writing his memoirs with the aid of a magnifying machine that helps him to see.
Don is a survivor, and some of that, I am sure, is due to an attitude that continues to guide him — it kept him alive while he was alone in the ocean, and it keeps him going today in the face of loss and limitation: “When you’ve got a job to do, you worry later. Do the job now.”
It’s not too late to submit Thanksgiving traditions and anecdotes to be used in a Thanksgiving edition of Conversations With Maine, coming out Nov. 18. Anything that comes in by the end of the day Saturday, Nov. 12, is eligible. Thanks! Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.