Stu Hedley credited a lesson his dad taught him for saving his life at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“You know how kids are always leaning back in the chair, even though we tell them not to?” he told a Casa de Oro Library audience in 2011. “Well, I used to do that as a young boy, even though my dad was constantly getting on me about it.”
One day, his dad came up behind his leaning-back son and knocked the chair down.
“Told me I needed to realize that all four legs were meant to stay on the ground,” he said.
So on Dec. 7, 1941 — when a Japanese shell blew a hole through USS West Virginia turret No. 3 “right by my feet” — the 20-year-old seaman first class survived an attack that killed more than 100 shipmates.
“If I’d had my legs pointed straight out, they would have been blown clear off,” Cynthia Robertson quoted Hedley as saying. “Because of what my dad had taught me, I always sat with my feet under the stool behind the gun turret.”
On Wednesday, the life of Stuart Noble Hedley ended amid another world crisis.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the longtime Clairemont resident died from complications of COVID-19 — 86 days short of turning 100.
“Clad in a Hawaiian shirt, white slacks and a medallion-bedecked garrison cap, Hedley made hundreds of appearances, in San Diego and elsewhere, sometimes going to multiple functions on the same day,” wrote John Wilkens in a U-T obituary. “By his count, he spoke to more than 200,000 people over the years.”
David Koontz, marketing director at the USS Midway Museum, was quoted as saying: “He never wanted what happened at Pearl Harbor to be forgotten. He was passionate about making sure we remembered the courage of those who were there that day.”
In a tweet Wednesday night, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria hailed Hedley as a hero.
“He survived Pearl Harbor and spent the rest of his life ensuring San Diegans never forgot the date that lives in infamy,” Gloria said. “His decades of advocacy for his fellow veterans made a difference and he will be missed.”
Nearly two years ago, the retired Navy chief petty officer — and two-time cancer survivor — presided over the final meeting of the last active chapter of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which closed as a corporate entity in 2011.
At a La Mesa meeting of Carnation Chapter 3. Hedley said: “I regret that we have to discontinue our chapter because we do not have sufficient survivors to maintain. As was already stated, we are a dying organization. We are done. Mahalo.”
Asked what the group meant to him, Hedley said: “It has fulfilled a desire in my heart to remember the oath of office that I took in 1940 to defend this country against all enemies foreign and domestic. We got more enemies inside our country than we got out.”
He said he had his sights set on returning to Hawaii in 2021 for the 80th anniversary of the attack that brought America into World War II — if he was healthy enough to make the trip.
Hedley vividly described his Pearl Harbor experience in a Dec. 7, 2020, speech aboard the USS Midway — including how he had originally planned to go on a picnic with his girlfriend and others that quiet Sunday.
“I am grateful to be here today to honor all the 2,468 of the finest men of our armed forces, who gave their life that morning,” he said.
Hedley told Escondido Sunrise Rotary in 2014 that he was born on a yacht in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Oct. 29, 1921, the son of a Navy lieutenant commander stationed at Pensacola, who had fought in World War I.
He had been married for 64 years when his wife passed away the previous December.
“He shared his secret to success,” said Peggy Reiber. “Take a honeymoon every five years!”
Stu’s parents divorced when he was 3, and he moved to Buffalo, New York. Stu’s stepmother, Henrietta, was a jealous woman, and of course Stu as the other wife’s child [bore] the brunt of much of her jealousy. This was shared only because it was the reason Stu quit high school four months shy of graduating and gave up an appointment to Annapolis and tried to join the Navy.
At 4’11” and 112 lbs., he did not meet the minimum requirements. He talked to the commander, since he had aced the tests, so they advised him of a new program Roosevelt had just started … they managed to get Stu in the [Civilian] Conservation Corps to build him up physically, mentally and spiritually. Given an ax and a forest full of trees to cut, the physical strength did come. Then his math skills were noted and he was asked to become a surveyor. By this time Stu had reached 5’2″ and 122 lbs, so he enlisted in the Navy in August 1940.
During his escape from the West Virginia, involving a frightening dive into water with oil and flames, he told a shipmate: “If I don’t get killed today, I’m going to live to see the end of this war. If you’ve got the faith to believe it, you can do it.”
The shipmate told him he didn’t have such faith. He died later in the war, Hedley would say.
In 2017, Assemblyman Brian Maienschein named Hedley as Veteran of the Year in the 77th Assembly District.
“Stuart Hedley’s courage and conviction was demonstrated time and time again throughout his career in the United States Navy,” Maienschein said. “It is our duty to remember and honor those who serve and protect our nation.”
Hedley retired from active duty in 1960 and spent 21 years with the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. He conducted inspections of Military Sealift Command ships and naval aircraft carriers, 92129 Magazine noted.
His constant refrain: “Remember Pearl Harbor; Keep America alert.”
In 2016, he recounted how he met Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese bomber pilot who led the first wave of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Fuchida said: “I was trying to kill you.”
Hedley replied: “You almost did.”