Keremeos resident Merrill Hewitt recently wrote a short memoir describing the 30 months he spent as Aviation Machinist’s Mate in the South Atlantic during World War II.
Hewitt served with patrol squadron 83, later renamed bombing squadron 107, most of the time patrolling the South Atlantic for enemy submarines.
The squadron received a presidential citation in 1950 “for extraordinary heroism in action against enemy forces in Atlantic waters during the periods January through April 1943.”
Hewitt’s account describes dates and events with exceptional historical accuracy and detail, because Hewitt was able to draw on log books he kept of his flight crew’s war efforts. He shines an informative light on a theatre of the Second World War that has received little attention over the years.
In looking back on his war years. Hewitt speculates, offering a number of “what if” scenarios on incidents described in his story that, had fate not unfolded as it did, would most likely have killed him.
Without actually saying it, Hewitt conveys a strong message that “war is hell” through his descriptios and comments over the results of some of his patrol’s encounters with the enemy.
Hewitt enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an underage 17 year old in Orlando, Florida .
“I didn’t even know Canada existed then,” he recalled when asked how he ended up in Keremeos.
Merrill and his wife, Helen, farmed and worked in Oregon in the 1960s when Merrill heard stories about the Vanderhoof area from a fellow millworker. Eventually, the Hewitts sold their holdings in Oregon and moved everything else to the Burns Lake area where they raised 200 head of cattle. They became Canadian citizens in 1967.
“Then the market sagged,” Hewitt said, “we were constantly having bear issues, and we were getting tired of the long cold winters, and black flies in summer.” Hewitt’s health was also compromised after a heart attack.
The couple had been making trips to Oregon over the years, making regular overnight stops in Keremeos at the Elks Motel.
“We always liked this valley,” Merrill recalled. In 1995, they sold their Burns Lake holdings and moved to Middle Bench Road.
At the age of 89, Merrill still suffers from the psychological effects of combat.
“There are two incidents that I think about all the time,” he said, “the thoughts keep coming back. I have sleepless nights about them.”
Merrill described the two instances – one being an attack on a German submarine that took place with another PB4Y (an aircraft used by the navy as a patrol bomber) in his squadron. Merrill’s plane was patrolling a short distance behind the attacking plane and he described the scene in his memoir:
“We were right behind number eight as they made their attack and saw their bombs string out right along side the sub and felt their was no need to bomb it again. Shortly it became obvious that it was badly damaged and beginning to settle by the stern, so we decided to circle the stricken submarine with number eight. Before long, men began pouring out of the conning tower and jumping into the water.
“…It looked as if the entire crew was now in the water surrounding the sub and it was obvious that in would be a matter of minutes before it was gone. They continued trying to get the second raft inflated as the sub began to slide stern first under water, the bow tipping almost straight up before slowly sliding under and out of sight.Meanwhile, the first raft was drifting in the wind… by this time was a good half mile away from where the sub had gone down. The rest of the survivors were still gathered around the second raft with little prospect of survival,being 400 miles from the nearest land.”
Merrill also described an incident where a new auxiliary fuel tank was being used for the first time while far offshore on patrol. The fuel transfer system failed to operate correctly, and Hewitt’s plane nearly came close to crashing twice on the flight – once when the fuel starved engines quit, and a second time when the plane returned to base with just fumes remaining in the tank.
“We did what we could, I guess,” he said summarizing his squadron’s war effort in simple terms.
“Some instances I hated – I can’t get over thinking about it.”
Merrill also describes an incident where his crew, returning from patrol, spotted a whale and used it for target practice.
“We didn’t need to do that,” he said regretfully.
Hewitt spent two days adrift at sea himself, after navy spare part supply problems resulted in his aircrew having to fly a malfunctioning airplane.
On a routine patrol, while heavily loaded and flying at low altitiude, one of the plane’s engine carburetors failed, resulting in an engine failure. The plane quickly lost altitiude and crashed into the ocean, seriously injuring Hewitt and another crew member. The seven crew members drifted in a survival raft until they were spotted by a search aircraft. Hewitt figures that with his injuries, he only had hours left at the time of their rescue.
This incident and others like it described in Hewitt’s memoir help to illustrate to the reader how risky the lives of his squadron members were. He discusses supply and policy issues with the navy that in some cases caused more trouble than enemy gunfire.
“There are two words that keep coming back to me,” he wrote near the conclusion of his memoir, “They are ‘what if.’
In spite of the haunting memories, Hewitt and Helen (who he met towards the end of his service) have survived to raise four children. Merrill has been plagued with hearing issues since the war, but said the U.S. Veterans Administration continues to do a “good job of looking after us.”
“We sit here each day and watch people rush past our house on Highway 3A on their way to Penticton. We see two Greyhound buses and one school bus go by each day and always check to see if they are on time… In our bedroom are two pictures of PB4Y No.7, (his plane) one in flight and one parked at Ibura Field in Natal, Brazil, with our crew of funny looking guys in front of it I look at these pictures each morning when I wake up and remember when.
And what if. I just can’t seem to forget them.”