Students learn experiences
of WWI vet ‘Doc’ Hedelius
‘Free to Be’ organization also sponsors programs
at Gunnison Valley and Manti High Schools
By Linda Petersen
Nov. 23, 2017
MT PLEASANT—North Sanpete High School students sat mesmerized by the account of local veteran Robert “Doc” Hedelius of Ephraim, who spoke to them of his World War II experiences during a Veteran’s Day assembly last Friday.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” presenter Larry Tooker said.
North Sanpete High Vice Principal Jeff Ericksen said, “To me, it felt like the room was filled with tangible respect, respect for a 91-year-old WWII veteran, respect for his wife of 66 years and respect for our country. I am very proud of the behavior of our students during the assembly, for their standing ovation, for their reverence and kindness toward Doc Hedelius and his wife as well as Larry and Jenifer.”
Hedelius, 91, an “almost retired” veterinarian who hails from Rexburg, Idaho enlisted in the Navy when he was just 17. He and four of his high school classmates each enlisted at different times but were all called up at the same time. All five survived the war and returned home. They got together many times over the years but today, Hedelius is the “last man standing.”
During his senior year, Hedelius was a student in a government-sponsored course in aviation mechanics. At the end, he was a qualified aircraft engine mechanic and fully expected that’s what he would do in the Navy.
However, toward the end of boot camp Hedelius was told they had no need for any more aircraft engine mechanics, that what they needed was submariners and Armed Guard (units that provided defensive firepower for merchant ships) personnel, but he was too small for the Armed Guard.
However, when boot camp ended, Hedelius was told that they didn’t need submariners and was asked if he would go into communications in the Armed Guard.
The young man agreed, and after shore posts in Idaho and San Francisco, spent the last six months of the war as part of a Navy contingent assigned to protect the merchant ship Liberty which was manned by a civilian crew and to provide communications for the ship. The Liberty transported aircraft engines, trucks, jeeps, medical supplies and—of all things—gallon cans of fruit cocktails to the troops stationed in Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean.
Unlike many merchant ships of the day which traveled in convoys, the Liberty made its voyages alone. Hedelius said they dodged a few submarines along the way.
“Several times we had submarine alerts at dusk and General Quarters were sounded. Then we’d spend the night awake all night long wondering if there was a torpedo out there with our name on it,” he said.
“I did have a chance to shoot at a Jap plane once, but I scared him away,” he added.
After the war, Hedelius finished out his tour of duty as part of an amphibious Landing Ship Medium unit.
He went on to have a long career as a veterinarian, working for the U.S. government for many years, a position that brought him and his wife Anna Jean to Ephraim in 1961. They’ve been here ever since. In 1987 he took a government retirement and went back into private practice where he’s been ever since.
“I’m just trying to quit. I’ve been at it for 65 years,” he said.
On Friday, along with the North Sanpete High program, Hedelius and Larry and Jenifer Tooker also took the presentation to students at Ephraim Middle School.
Both experiences were very positive for the veteran.
He said, “I got a tremendous ovation and afterwards, the kids came up and I shook so many hands, my hand was almost numb before we were through.”
This was actually the first time Hedelius has shared his war experiences publicly. He was recently contacted by Larry Tooker of the Free to Be assembly program and asked to participate with them in the programs at the local schools. Hedelius said he initially thought it was some kind of scam but took it more seriously when Tooker sent him a follow up letter.
Hedelius had high praise for the Free to Be presentation by Tooker which, according to its website, incorporates live speakers, emotional video, powerful music, and eye-catching graphics into a 50-minute presentation.
“It was a very interesting film which really showed that freedom is not free,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I just felt it was my duty,” Hedelius said of his wartime service. “The sentiment in the country was a lot different than that it is now. These days, people will say ‘I’m just not interested in military service,’ but during WWII the whole country was mobilized. If you weren’t on active duty, you were working in a factory that built airplanes, tanks or trucks. Everyone just did their part.”
According to its website, Free to Be is a “nonprofit organization which presents free assembly programs to middle schools and high schools across the nation – about America, Freedom, Education, Opportunity and Patriotism – and about not taking our freedom and all its benefits for granted.” Free to Be was also presented at Manti High and Gunnison High schools last week.
The Tookers, who are from Fairview, Texas travel the U.S., sharing their presentations at schools across the country.