In the years after he finished the eighth grade a St. Francis Xavier School in Taos, local resident Bernard Heet remained actively employed helping his parents work their farm. However, as World War II continued to expand and a number of young men were called upon to fight on land, air and sea, the 18-year-old farmhand received his own draft notice and soon found himself aboard a Navy ship traversing the Pacific Ocean. Inducted into the U.S. Navy in St. Louis on October 24, 1944, Heet traveled to Farragut, Idaho, for his basic training—an inland naval station that opened in September 1942 and was decommissioned in June 1946.
“When my boot camp was finished, they sent me to Bremerton, Washington in early 1945,” Heet recalled. “That’s where they assigned me to the USS PC-817—a submarine chaser.”
Commissioned in July 1943, the USS PC-817 had a crew of nearly five dozen sailors and spent the year prior to Heet’s arrival escorting supply convoys and transporting passengers to American bases in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. In the latter part of November 1944, the vessel traveled to the state of Washington to undergo a major overhaul. Shortly after boarding the ship on February 23, 1945, the young sailor requested assignment to the engine room since he liked working with various types of equipment and had yet to be placed in a specific job. However, once he was able to visit the engine room he “quickly decided against it because of all of the noise and you couldn’t see anything,” he jokingly recalled.
He was then appointed to serve as a signalman aboard the ship, learning to communicate from ship to ship using flashing lights. The earliest part of his training, he explained, consisted of learning Morse code by first using flashlights before transitioning to the larger lights mounted on the ship.
“We weren’t at Bremerton for very long before they sent us to Pearl Harbor,” he said. “That was our home base and was from where he operated on runs throughout the Pacific searching for enemy submarines,” he added.
For the next several months, his ship would conduct exercises in concert with submarines from the United States, such as the USS Catfish and USS Bowfin. During other maneuvers, Heet’s ship honed their skills in using sonar to detect enemy submarines while conducting patrols and provided escorts between islands for a number of naval vessels. On other occasions, naval records indicate, while training with ships and submarines of the Pacific fleet, Heet and the sailors aboard the USS PC-817 learned to evade torpedo attacks, dropped depth charges in areas with suspected enemy submarine activity and expended thousands of rounds of ammunition during simulated gunnery operations.
Despite the many dangers presented by Japanese aircraft, submarines and vessels throughout the Pacific, Heet affirmed, “We never found any Japanese subs and they never found us, which worked out alright.”
When the war ended in late summer 1945 with the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri, the USS PC-817 returned to the West Coast in September 1945 and shortly thereafter traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, via a waterway that left quite an impression on a young man from landlocked Mid-Missouri.
“I think the most memorable experience of the entire time I spent in the Navy was going through the Panama Canal,” said Heet, his expression lighting up from the memory. “Going through those locks had been something I had read about before, but it was nothing like experiencing it firsthand,” he added.
Arriving at port in Florida in late November 1945, Heet remained with the ship until March 1946, at which time he received his discharge from the United States Navy. According to his discharge records, he spent a total of one year, four months and 26 days in active military service. The USS PC-817 remained in service for several years, during which time it was used to help train Navy Reservists. The vessel was struck from the Navy Register on April 1, 1959 and, shortly thereafter, met with the inglorious fate of being sold for scrap.
Returning to Mid-Missouri, Heet married his fiancée, Laurine, in 1950, and the couple raised seven children. In the years after his wartime service, the Navy veteran worked for a few years in the garage of a local Ford dealership before the Missouri Highway Patrol hired him, the latter from which he retired in 1994 as superintendent of all their garages throughout the state.
There may exist an extensive compilation of memories from his brief wartime service on which he can now reflect, yet Heet chooses to view the time he served in the Navy from a rather simple and humble perspective.
“When you grew up in a small town, you really didn’t go anywhere or doing anything—then you end up in the Navy and get to see the world. That’s really something else,” the veteran grinned. “We were certainly a long way from home and I never asked to serve, I really didn’t have any other choice.” He added, “But I am glad for the experience and have always been proud to have served my country.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.