One of area’s last Pearl Harbor attack survivors dies at age 94
By Denise Crosby email@example.com April 30, 2012 8:06PM
Despite serving through World War II and saving a fellow sailor's life during the attacks on Pearl Harbor, George Hettinger denies that he is a hero. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 2, 2012 8:15AM
I’m grateful we were able to share his story with all of you.
On Sunday, George Hettinger, one of the Fox Valley’s last remaining survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor, died at his home in North Aurora at the age of 94.
For seven decades, Hettinger had mostly shared those memories with close family members. Then, last year — a couple days before the 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing — he agreed to talk to us about being aboard the USS Utah on Dec. 7, 1941, when the first of those enemy torpedoes hit his ship port-side.
By the time he agreed to talk about his experience, Hettinger — struggling with chronic pulmonary disease — was already on oxygen, and his words came out haltingly. It took some effort, and considerable help from his family, to understand some of the things he was saying. But he remembered being rescued from the ocean when his ship was attacked. He recalled 9-inch shells dropping all around him. He remembered his friend trapped in the hull who had to be cut out.
Hettinger told me he still thought about it, still dreamed about it.
Most of his story, however, had to be told from the written account put together by his daughter-in-law, Cheryl Hettinger, in 2004, when the old veteran’s health was still good.
“It was hard for him to talk about it,” she recalled on Monday. “He cried a lot.”
According to family, George Hettinger, born Feb. 22, 1918, was the youngest of 10 children. The North Aurora farm boy enlisted in the Navy in 1938 and went on to become an electrician on the USS Utah. He was in the bunk room when the Japanese torpedo hit, and his first thought was going back to grab his West Aurora High School ring — until he saw smoke filling the compartment. Within minutes, the USS Utah toppled, trapping dozens of men below. Six officers and 52 enlisted men died.
“When I finally go into the water, my hands and feet were going like crazy ... shrapnel started falling,” he recalled. “There was another guy ... struggling in the water below me, hollering that he couldn’t swim. I went back to help this guy out.”
Afterward, Hettinger’s next assignment was on the bomb-damaged USS Honolulu until it was repaired in September 1943.
He eventually became a chief petty officer and was transferred to school in Washington, D.C. He also served in the Korean War. And when he returned to his hometown, he established a successful career as a union electrician and raised two sons, George Jr. and Greg, with is wife Ellen, who passed away in 2007. He has six grandchildren as well as three great-grandchildren.
Cheryl Hettinger described her father-in-law as “a quiet man” who dealt with the horrors of Pearl Harbor in his own way. “It took its toll; it really affected him. But he was proud of his service to America.”
He was the kind of man who, if something needed to be done, “you did it yourself,” she added. Hettinger also enjoyed working in the yard and possessed a deep spiritual faith.
Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Daleiden Mortuary, 270 N. Lake St. in Aurora. A funeral Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 2300 Main St. in Batavia, with interment in Marywood Cemetery in Aurora.
Hettinger will be buried in his Navy uniform, according to family, but they hope his medals can be donated somewhere so they can be on display as a reminder of his service to this country.
I hope so, too. Our World War II veterans are leaving us quickly. Soon, all we will have left are their medals and — if we’re fortunate — the memories they left behind.