Tom Hyer honored as 2019 Distinguished Veteran

Scott Swanson

When World War II broke out for the United States in 1941, Tom Hyer wanted to enter the service – but his mother, Audrey Bryant, said she wouldn’t sign for him. He was 16.

“She knew what she was doing,” Hyer says now.

So he had to wait until his 17th birthday, in April 1942, to sign up for a four-year stint in the Navy.

A fourth-generation Oregonian, Hyer moved to Sweet Home when he was 6 months old. He grew up on Whiskey Butte, where his family lived a hardscrabble existence, he said.

“We had to raise enough produce to feed the family because we couldn’t buy that,” he said.

He followed his older brother Jim into the service, as well as his father and grandfather, who were all Navy men. His younger brother, Karel, would enlist two years later on his 16th birthday, leaving their mother with all of her sons fighting in the war.

Hyer, now 94, is one of five area veterans chosen as 2019 Distinguished Veterans, who will be featured in the Albany Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11. He was nominated by Mike Melcher.

“I’ve known Tom for years,” said Al Severson, vice persident of the parade organization and chair of the Veterans of the Year banquet, which will be held at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Linn County Expo Center.

“He’s a heck of a great guy. He’s done a lot for Sweet Home. He’s a very deserving man and he’s the type of guy we like to honor.”

After finishing basic training in San Diego, Calif., Hyer was shipped to the East Coast, where he spent the duration of the war, he said.

“I never got back, except for one leave,” he said. “It was a time when we were lucky to get any leave. We had real problems with the Japanese and Germans.”

He spent four years and 11 days in the military, he remembers.

By his 18th birthday, he was in training in England in underwater demolition – the precursor to the Navy SEALs, with the primary mission of joining the Landing Craft Infantry at the invasion of Normandy. He loved diving and found the training very challenging. But while in training, an accidental underwater explosion left him with both eardrums broken and two of his fellow soldiers critically injured.

At 19, and unable to dive any longer, he was reassigned to an aircraft carrier, the USS Block Island, a Bogue-class escort carrier that carried 24 planes to escort merchant ships taking goods to Europe.

Later, he served as a torpedo man on a CBF single-engine bomber. The two-seater planes had the critical mission of chasing German submarines in the Atlantic. “Wolf-packs” of German U-boats, preyed on merchant ships, causing heavy losses and high mortality rates for merchant crews.

“We tried to keep the Germans off of them,” Hyer said. “Those German submarines were hell. They knew what they were doing. They had more practice than we did. They’d been in war six to eight years. We’d only been in for a couple of years.”

Hyer noted that the subs were stealthy, and in the pre-radar days, were especially difficult to detect.

“You had to visibly see them. They’d lie in wait. (Trainers) told us in a meeting that when they got into combat, they made (crew members) all go barefoot, because they figured that made less noise.”

That’s because the U.S. Navy had expert specialists who could detect the slightest unusual sound.

“If they’d been walking around, we would have found them. If they’d farted, we’d find the bubble.”

Hyer said the Germans were also forced to watch oncoming convoys, so monitors would be on the lookout for periscopes or torpedoed ships to detect the enemy’s presence, since the German subs were known for being very stealthy with the ability to stay undetected on the ocean floor for long periods. The Block Island’s crew proudly boasted that they had no incoming or outgoing accidents with any of their planes.

“I was the only torpedo man on the ship,” Hyer said. “We had four torpedos, but they never got uncrated. We had lots of depth charges, when we could find a target.”

Though he developed a lifelong love of flying and dreamed of being a pilot, since he didn’t finish high school, that wasn’t an option.

Other pilots, who often were based on converted cruise ships – “they took the top off and slapped a flat top on them and they were an aircraft carrier” – were no older than he was, Hyer said.

“The people flying off those little aircraft carriers, just a few months ago were in high school. They were just teenagers – 18, 19 years old, flying with people shooting at them.”

At age 84, Hyer rekindled his love of flying when he got a powered parachute. His rainbow-colored chute was a familiar sight in the early-morning skies around Sweet Home for years.

In 2013, he was awarded an honorary diploma at Sweet Home High School and graduated alongside his youngest grandson, one of his proudest moments.

He said he appreciated being stationed in Boca Chica, Fla., for most of the war, before finishing his service at Ft. Meyers, Fla.

“I liked the duty there. I got flight pay and overseas pay – and the weather was good too,” he added, noting that a lot of the Rock Island’s patrols were in the area of the equator, in the south Atlantic.

After getting his discharge in April 1946, Hyer returned to Sweet Home, where he went to work in the woods, falling timber by hand.

“Then they came out with the chainsaw,” he said. “That was revolutionary.”

He married his sweetheart, Betty, in 1952, and raised three children.

Hyer and partner Jerry Gabriel operated G&H Logging for 40 years before retiring.

Their firm was active in the community in many ways.

Hyer has been active in the American Legion Lodge in Lebanon, and has also been a longtime member in the Sweet Home Elks Lodge. He enjoys cutting firewood daily, and it’s common for him to donate and deliver it to those in need, said his daughter, Melissa Wise.

Hyer recently attended the funeral, in Sublimity, for Bill Gabriel, one of his buddies from the war days.

“We’re getting pretty thin,” he said. “I’m the only one with a World War II hat at the American Legion in Lebanon.”

The war wasn’t pleasant, though military service offered some perks for him, he said.

“It was better than I’d ever lived in my lifetime, anyway. With no father, we didn’t have an easy life.

“The Germans were the enemy and they were a deadly enemy too. It was something that had to be done.”