JAMESTOWN – In his Navy service, former Wickford Middle School Principal Martin Hellewell (a 1954 graduate of WMS)—who retired as a captain—logged 30 years, 10 on active duty and 20 in the Reserves.
At 74, he says he was involved in Cold War activities “big time”, starting after his 1960 graduation from Officers Candidate School. “I went as an engineer officer on a patrol craft escort based out of Chicago.
“We cruised the Great Lakes, picked up reserve units and trained two weeks at a time and went up the St. Lawrence Seaway,” he explains. “It was a wonderful experience going up into Lake Superior, into Canada.”
In ’62, he went to the second class of destroyer school and was assigned to a ship based in Newport. In two years he’d made lieutenant and returned to teach engineering at Newport. He taught at destroyer school and joined the USS Decatur DDG-31 as operations officer after the ship was completely reconfigured and commissioned as the first of its class – having barely survived a terrible collision in the mid-Atlantic.
The ship was converted at the Boston Naval Shipyard, becoming a guided missile destroyer, he says, after jammed steering mechanism caused it to crash into the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain on May 6, 1964. (Hellewell was not yet a crew member at the time of the crash of the storied warship.)
He ended his active duty career in 1969 as materiel officer in charge of engineering and maintenance.
“Eventually, because of a local parish priest who got me interested, I joined the Navy Reserve,” he notes. Hellewell’s next 20 years required him to take on many key areas of responsibility including undersea warfare (disarming mines), regional readiness, re-enlistment efforts, fleet training and inspection. He traveled for a time on assignments to such diverse and far-flung spots as Iceland and Guantanamo Bay.
He was also involved in the very beginning of establishing how the Federal Emergency Management Agency would operate.
“I worked with FEMA, in the forefront of presenting the interface between the military and the armed forces command for all of New England,” he recalls. “I was the lead officer in working with that. In the Reserves, you have to have a command position or you’re out. The readiness command was in Newport and I’m in Jamestown; I could put the time in.”
His final tour was at the War College in Newport.
Even after retiring, he continues to serve in a special way, drawing on his gifts as a musician: He plays Taps for his fallen brothers in arms. He has also been an organizer of area players who have joined at the Veterans Cemetery to participate in an observance known as Worldwide Taps.
“As a retiree, I started doing veterans’ memorials at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery,” he says. “A friend, Mike Jackson, [Air Force Technical Sergeant, Ret.], who is the emeritus bugler recruited me from the Jamestown Community Band. I think I’ve participated in 190 military funerals around the state.”
Today he limits himself to services in Exeter where he notes, a recent service marked the burial of a victim one of the most heinous acts of warfare ever recorded. “He was among the last survivors of the Bataan Death March,” says Hellewell.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .