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Couple balances WWII duties, careers and family

Don and Jean Heckler have been married nearly 69 years


by: BARBARA SHERMAN - A GOOD LIFE - Don and Jean Heckler's favorite chair is this rocker because it has the initials of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren carved into it.Don Heckler is known among King City golfers as an innovator, designing his own clubs and equipment to give himself an edge (although a legal one, to be sure).

But there is a lot more to his life than coming up with inventions that rank up there with Velcro golf gloves, long putters and simulators.

Born in Ventura, Calif., on Jan. 31, 1924, Don graduated from high school in 1942 and found work at Port Hueneme as a stacker operator.

Meanwhile, Jean was a year behind him in school, and they knew each other casually but didn't start dating until after high school.

"Me and my two buddies got notices to enlist," Don recalled. "We decided to run up to Santa Barbara and join the Coast Guard - we didn't know they did beach patrols. One buddy had bad teeth and was rejected, and he ended up becoming a tail gunner on a B-17.

"My other buddy and I joined and were sent to San Clemente for boot camp for seven days. One day on the firing range made us sharpshooters, and then we were put on beach patrol - two men, a dog and a phone - to check beaches around San Diego. I requested a transfer to Ventura County and walked the beaches there."

Don and his buddy then were assigned together to the same ship - the U.S.S. Eastwind.

"My buddy wanted to be on a ship, and I think he put my name in too," Don said. "We had to wait for a week on Catalina Island to get on it and trained with Marines who were preparing for Guadalcanal to kill with their hands."

Part of the training included dipping their hands repeatedly in brine until they became stiff as boards and effective killing machines.

"After a month of that, we could deliver a lethal chop to someone's throat or nose," Don said.

The Eastwind was the second of five Wind-class icebreakers built for the Coast Guard at the San Pedro shipyards, launched in February 1943 and commissioned June 3, 1944. The Wind-class icebreakers were heavily armed due to being designed during World War II.

Her main battery consisted of two twin-mount 5-inch deck guns. Her anti-aircraft weaponry consisted of three quad-mounted Bofors 40-mm anti-aircraft auto-cannons and six Oerlikon 20-mm auto-cannons. She also carried six K-gun depth-charge projectors and a Hedgehog as anti-submarine weapons.

"Our trial run required us to drop depth charges off of Catalina, and the concussion loosened the bottom plates on the ship," Don said. "We had to go back into dry dock for repairs."

by: COURTESY OF DON AND JEAN HECKLER - WAR BRIDE AND GROOM - Don and Jean Heckler get married June 9, 1944, when he got an unexpected six-day leave before shipping out with the Coast Guard.The crew was given a six-day leave, and by then Don and Jean were a serious couple, so when he got the leave, they decided to get married, which took place in Ventura on June 9, 1944.

"It all happened so fast," Jean said. "My best friend couldn't make it to be my maid of honor, so Don's cousin's wife stood in. And our parents were working and couldn't make it either."

Jean recalled that at the time she was working at JC Penney doing the books, and as a service to nearby workers who got their paychecks after the banks closed, the company allowed them to cash their checks. "The men lined up to get their cash," Jean said.

After the Eastwind was repaired, it headed to Wilmington, Del., via the Panama Canal and up the East Coast.

In the ship's first cruise to Greenland, "we tried to break the ice, and the 16-foot screw in the front rammed back into the front engine room, and we had to rush back and get it fixed," Don said.

With the Eastwind repaired and the crew back on board, the ship returned to Greenland, according to Don, who started in the Coast Guard as an apprentice seaman and left as a seaman first class.

"On the way to Greenland, we dropped depth charges on a submarine and then left in a hurry," Don said.

The Eastwind was transporting 200 U.S. Army troops who captured the last German weather station in Greenland, Edelweiss II, in October 1944.

"Off of Greenland, we dropped off our seaplane, and it sighted the German trawler Externsteine, which was re-supplying their base. We cut through the ice one quarter-mile from the island and fired at them and sent 60 men to get the Germans - they gave up instantly.

"Then we went after their ship, which was the only one captured intact during the war. We were the biggest ship there, so we had to deal with the German ship."

(As a side note, the U.S. Coast Guard later commissioned the Externsteine as the USS Eastbreeze.)

One of the Eastwind's missions was to supply a weather station on the coast of Greenland, and another was to clear a path in the ice for its seaplane pilot to land.

"Every time he was returning, he would call on the radio, and we would clear a path so he could come in," Don said.

On one of the ship's missions, "I was knocked overboard off the landing craft into the water," Don said. "The water was so cold that five minutes in it was terminal, but I had waterproofed my foul-weather gear. I had put tape around my sleeves and gloves and around my pants and shoes to keep the wind and water out, so I bounced back up like a cork and was able to grab a net and get out."

Don's chief job on the Eastwind was in the galley: "We were rotating jobs with deck hands, and a petty officer asked me to be in charge of the mess hall, so I became the mess cook. He said they liked the way I made coffee, but I just made it to my taste and put in eggshells."

Don left the Eastwind while it was still in Greenland: "Our crew was taken to Iceland, and other ships took us back to Boston, and then I was discharged in Long Beach," he said.

Don's service in the Coast Guard ran from Jan. 3, 1943, to Nov. 26, 1945, and his discharge certificate reveals that he was paid $66 per month at the time of his discharge and received 4.8 cents per mile for his travel allowance from Long Beach to Ventura.

Don went to work as a planner for the county of Ventura, and after the couple had their two daughters, Jean went back to work at Penney's during Christmas and filling in for people on vacation.

"After the girls were in school, I went back full time, and my mom helped by taking care of them after school," Jean said.

When a new store opened, Jean was made the personnel manager and worked four more years before both she and Don retired.

They moved to Grants Pass because their younger daughter lived there; although at the time their oldest daughter lived in New York, her husband's job was terminated, "and we all ended up in Grants Pass," Jean said.

Don and Jean purchased seven acres near Grants Pass and lived there 25 years. Don started out farming but then developed a golf course on the property and allowed people to play for free.

He developed an interest in golf while Jean was still working at her last JC Penney store and told him there was a sporting goods sale. Don came in and purchased golf clubs.

Using his shiny new clubs on a local course, the pro came up to him and said, "Don, I have a question: Why are you playing with half men's clubs and half women's clubs?"

Don's excuse was, "Those were the first clubs I ever bought, and the salesman obviously wasn't very helpful. I was just counting the numbers. The women's clubs were a different color from the men's, but I'm colorblind. And Penney's did exchange them.

"When I was 78, they had a qualifying day at the Applegate Country Club, and I qualified for the state championship but had to miss it because Jean's brother died, and his funeral was that day."

But Don might have an advantage - albeit a perfectly legal one - over other golfers since he plays with his personally designed clubs.

"I use all woods except for the wedge and the putter," said Don, who also puts marks on the woods' handles so he knows where to place his hands, because each mark, an inch apart, determines in 10-yard increments how fall the ball will go.

A huge Oregon State University fan due to three grandchildren going there and one of them marrying an OSU student for a total of four in the family, Don's clubs are painted orange, and he hits yellow duck balls. His putter is state of the art: It has a built-in a magnet to pick up and release ball markers, a suction cup for picking up balls and a white circle in the center of the top that provides a guide for making straight putts.

The Hecklers, who have lived in King City for seven years, will have been married for 69 years in June, and along with their two daughters, they have seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, with four of them born in 2012.