VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
100-year-old Veteran recalls life on PT Boat
He survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II and went on to have a storied coaching career. Now 100, Hue Jewkes reflected on a lifetime of service and - his time at war in the Philippines.
Born in 1919 – before the TV, the first radio broadcast, or even sliced bread – Jewkes was one of 13 children raised in the rugged benchlands of Castle Dale Utah, population 700.
He was only 10 when the Great Depression swept the nation.
Unemployment skyrocketed. Food became scarce. And pennies meant the difference between being poor or being homeless.
“It was something,” Jewkes said. “I did know enough that a nickel really meant a lot.”
He weathered those lean years only to face another battle when the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the country into war.
Watch: Life on a PT Boat
While some men feared the thought of combat, Jewkes craved it.
“I was so disgusted with that attack on Pearl Harbor. It didn’t take long, and I don’t like saying this, but I became very, very mad at the Japanese,” Jewkes said. “I hated them.”
Though he had never seen the ocean, Jewkes enlisted in the Navy in 1944, training as a midshipman at Notre Dame University.
“I just figured it was my business to do it,” he said. “I was just one of the American boys that had to go protect their county.”
Soon, he was patrolling off the Panama Canal, Oahu, and Midway Island. But the worst, he said, were the dark waters of the Philippines.
As Jewkes’ tells it, the man who would later become famed Navy Admiral and Medal of Honor recipient John D. Bulkeley, interviewed hundreds of sailors to form a Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron.
Bulkeley knew some men would not return from their dangerous missions. During the interview, Bulkeley asked Jewkes if his death would burden his family.
“I’m from a family of 13 kids,” Jewkes replied. “They wouldn’t even know I was gone.”
Bulkeley hand-picked just 20 men. Among them was Jewkes.
While he started out assisting a captain, soon Jewkes was commanding a boat of his own: an 80-foot long PT Torpedo Boat the men affectionately dubbed, The Purple Shaft. With a top speed of nearly 50 mph, the boat was among the fastest in the Navy.
That swiftness would pay off, like the time Jewkes saved a pilot who ditched in the drink.
Finding a man amid the Pacific’s vast waters was hard enough; worse still, every hour the pilot drifted increased his chances of being lost at sea.
Against the clock, the crew sped off to the pilot’s last known location; knowing a man’s life depended on them finding a needle in a haystack.
But a lucky break would save the day: The route the men plotted had brought them so close they nearly hit the pilot.
“If we hadn’t seen him when we did, we would’ve run right over the top of him,” Jewkes said.
Jewkes had saved a man’s life, not knowing soon, he would need to save his own.
It was a day like any other; another patrol out in the Philippine seas. But on this day, Jewkes’ crew spotted a fighter closing in on their boat. The plane dove and swooped hard – close enough for Jewkes to see that it was American. But instead of his dipping his wings, the pilot fired.
The sailors were sitting ducks.
The next few seconds meant the difference between a misunderstanding or a tragedy; even the slightest error could spell death.
Immediately, Jewkes took evasive maneuvers and fired a warning shot.
The sailors waited, all eyes on the plane wondering, ‘Would it turn around?’
Jewkes’ cool-headedness bought the crew enough time for the pilot to recognize his error, and the plane kept on.
“That was a little scary,” Jewkes said, adding that fortunately, “No one was a good shot that day.”
The close encounter did little to rattle Jewkes, whose bloodlust toward the Japanese was growing stronger by the day.
“We didn’t think of the Japanese as people, just as enemies,” Jewkes said. “If I had ever had a chance to have hand-to-hand combat, I’d have done everything in my power to kill them.”
Even in war, there are a few bright spots.
One was meeting, Carol Jean, Jewkes’ future wife. It all began with a photo and a love letter.
As the story goes, Jewkes’ sister sent him a photo of his nephew’s fiancée.
“I wrote back and said, ‘My she’s a beauty. Hasn’t she got a sister?’” Jewkes said.
Soon he had a picture of Carol Jean. One look and his heart skipped.
“We started writing,” Jewkes said. “I fell in love with her before I ever met her.”
They got married while Jewkes was on leave in San Francisco. But the fairytale was short-lived. He was ordered back to the Philippines the next day.
Back on the dangerous shores, Jewkes continued hunting the enemy.
He wanted action. He wanted justice. But mostly, he wanted revenge.
He would get his chance.
Word came down that the Japanese set up shop in the area. Jewkes and the men were the welcoming committee.
It didn’t take long for the enemy to announce its presence. The sailors were greeted with a shower of bullets.
“We were shot at and sent some rockets and fired on the shoreline,” Jewkes said. “At one time we were quite positive our boat hit an ammunition dump and blew it up, but we didn’t see any evidence of dead people or anything. We didn’t go in that close.”
Seventy-five years has passed since then, and the wisdom of age has tempered his outlook.
“The Philippines, it was war. I think there’s quite a few people that get involved in war activities and don’t really understand what it is until it happens,” Jewkes said. “They’re like I was. I didn’t think about them shooting at me or me shooting at them. It was business; business of the day.”
“As time went on, I’ve forgiven them. They were just doing what they were told by their leaders. We were doing what we were told and if it was to kill a bunch of them, we were willing and ready to do it. I learned since they’re human too and they made mistakes…”
Lieutenant Jewkes was honorably discharged from the Navy in December of 1948. After graduation, he raised five children, eight grandkids, and 12 great-grandkids.
He taught health, math, citizenship, shop and coached sports at South Summit High School in Kamas, Utah for 22 years. He taught another 22 years at Jordan middle and high schools. Then he spent six more years helping his son, who was crippled by muscular dystrophy, coach Little League.
He cared for his two disabled children until just three years ago when the last one died. He was 97 then, his Granddaughter Dania Mecham said.
“He took care of both of them when a lot of other people would’ve given up,” Mecham said. “He was their hand, their everything.”
Time has claimed much of his once large family.
Carol Jean died about 14 years ago. All but one of Jewkes’ 12 siblings are dead. And of his five children, only two remain.
His glory days long behind him, gloves cover his cold hands and a walker aides him. But his mind is still sharp, and his heart is as big as ever.
He’s “… a man who would pretty much do anything for anybody,” Mecham said.
Throughout Jewkes’ life, the consistent thread through it has been service; he was a man who saw a need and responded.
And while to many, Jewkes was a role model, to Mecham, he’s a second father – and a hero.
“He tried to do what right for our country,” she said. “I think of him as a protector of our country.”
Like so many of his generation, Jewkes dismissed the notion that he’s a hero.
“All I did was went out to do my job as I was called and trained to do,” Jewkes said. “I didn’t do anything extra special.”