Auld Lang Syne

As we say a relieved good-bye to 2020 and turn a hopeful gaze toward 2021, I’ve elected to remember a man who lived through a time more treacherous than any my generation has lived through – as a member of the “greatest generation,” one who fought in WWII and who has been written about by Tom Brokaw in a book by the same name. You’ve been introduced to John Hewitt’s family in earlier blogs, but I’ve never told you about John, himself, whom I met on a train platform in Edinburgh, Scotland and to whom I now raise a glass of cheer while humming “Auld Lang Syne.”

Below: John and Doris Hewitt The family: Colin, John, Doris Alistair and David

(John, Doris and David have passed).

John joined the British Merchant Navy in 1941, after turning eighteen. He studied at an Edinburgh naval college, graduating as a radio operator and shipping out in ’42. During his years of service, John sailed around the world multiple times, with ports of call at Rio de Janeiro, New York, Boston, the Suez Canal, Egypt, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and South Africa – visiting some of those places several times.

In November, 1943, John took part in an operation named “Torch,” an amphibious allied invasion of French North Africa. John was in a convoy charged with landing munitions in Algeria. The British and American ships were already facing stiff opposition from the French Vichy at Algiers. Shortly before John’s ship arrived, another allied ammunition ship was blown up, taking half the dock with it and leaving devastating human carnage behind, which John and his shipmates witnessed close up. While Operation Torch was a success, once back home, John only told funny stories from the war and not what he’d seen that day. He kept the story hidden for many years, yet he recognized the moment he had to open up.

It happened when Colin, now a policeman, spent Christmas of 1988 at Lockerbie, Scotland retrieving bodies from Pan Am Flight 103. The wreckage at the plane crash site was as horrible as what John had seen at Algiers and was difficult for Colin to reconcile in his mind. John quietly sat him down to recount the horrors he’d seen during the war and shared with him how to deal with wrenching and haunting memories, speaking man to man, father to son, military man to military man.

Sharing or listening to an indelibly painful experience requires an intimate and innermost strength, I’d think. Most of us are spared such memories, thank goodness, but John wasn’t, and when his son wasn’t either, he did what had to be done, a trait which perhaps is the best characteristic defining The Greatest Generation.

Here’s to you, John.