A book. A movie. Reflections to the Korean War. Honor Flight.
When “Devotion,” a war movie about the Navy’s first black aviator debuted in November, the floodgates of memories opened for longtime Fallon resident and 95-year-old Navy veteran Ernest “Ernie” Heying.
Although the Minnesota native, who was born July 15, 1927, saw action aboard six aircraft carriers during his career, each warship holds special memories. He served aboard the USS Coral Sea when the North Koreans attacked and captured the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence spy ship, in 1968. He sailed on both the USS Enterprise and USS Bon Homme Richard during the Vietnam War.
Yet, his time on the aircraft carrier USS Leyte may rank near the top since Adam Makos’ “Devotion,” both a 2014 book and then a 2022 movie, told of the friendship between Ensign Jesse Brown and his wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner. Brown had completed his flight program and earned his wings in 1948 followed by his first assignment aboard the Leyte. Both Heying and Brown served on the Essex-class aircraft carrier before and during the first six months of the Korean War, but because of their difference in rank, their paths didn’t cross.
“He was an officer. I was enlisted. I knew of him,” Heying said. “I was in (fighter squadron) VF-33, and he was in VF-32.”
After receiving his wings, Brown reported to the Leyte in January 1949, and the aircraft carrier was conducting training along the East Coast and deployed several times to the Mediterranean in late 1949 and then again from May to August 1950. Brown and the other officers met actress Elizabeth Taylor at Nice on a port call, as did Heying and his buddies. Taylor was attending a film festival at Cannes, and after all these years, Heying still has a black and white photo of Taylor posing with Heying and his shipmates.
“She was very beautiful like from the movies,” Heying said. “She really enjoyed posing with the sailors.”
Another scene from Cannes that Heying remembers is her blue Cadillac convertible, which he said “really stood out in France.”
Brown and Hudner persuaded one of the world’s most recognizable movie stars to visit the Leyte during the spring, weeks before the Korean War broke out in June 1950. The beginning of the Korean War led to the Leyte sailing for Sasebo, Japan, on Oct. 8 and spending the next 92 days as part of the U.S. Fleet Activities, a major launching point against Korea for the United Nations and U.S. forces.
Brown’s fateful flight
The weather grew colder with a hard bite, almost intolerable for the men performing their duties on the Leyte’s deck. Brown and the other pilots, who wore canvas caps in the cockpit, flew dozens of close-support missions into northeastern Korea near the Chosin Reservoir, long noted for its brutal, freezing temperatures. The Chinese 9th Army outnumbered soldiers from the U.S. Army’s X Corps, 100,000 to 15,000.
Heying felt sorry for the soldiers and Marines who hunkered down near the reservoir. The winter produced the coldest weather in a century, some temperatures dropping as low as minus-54 degrees. Soldiers not properly protected in the foxholes froze to death against a silent enemy.
“They were so cold, so miserable. They were running out of food, running out of ammo and had few places to sleep,” he said.
Choppy seas and gale-force winds, meanwhile, battered the Navy ships. On Dec. 4, 1950, Brown, along with five other aviators including his wingman, lifted off from the Leyte flying about 700-800 feet over the harsh, snowy terrain to Chosin Reservoir. During their mission, small arms fire pierced Brown’s fuel line, forcing him to jettison a fuel tank to land on a rock-hard snow-covered clearing.
The hard landing broke up Brown’s Corsair, causing the jet to abruptly stop and pin his legs underneath the fuselage. The pilot’s condition worsened, causing him to slip in and out of consciousness. Despite Hudson purposely landing his Corsair next to Brown’s and exiting to help the aviator, he failed to free the ensign from inside the cockpit. Once a rescue helicopter arrived, attempts to free Brown still failed, prompting the rescue team to leave the site before nightfall. With temperatures plummeting to below zero, Brown succumbed to his injuries, freezing to death in the harsh Korean weather.
F4U-4 Corsairs are tied down on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Leyte. (U.S. Naval Archives)
With the intensity of fighting and sorties flown against the enemy forces in Korea, Heying said the Leyte’s crew couldn’t mourn after they heard of Brown’s death.
“We were always busy … we didn’t have time,” Heying said. “The Chinese had come over the Yalu River, and we were busy 24 hours a day. I never got out of my clothes for two weeks because of the flight schedule. We had to keep the planes flying.”
Three years after the Korean War ended, Heying met a WAVE who served as a flight attendant at Patuxent River, Maryland, southeast of Washington, D.C. They married in 1957 and remained together until she died Dec. 27, 2017. Their five children – Joe, Jay, Teresa, Chris and Renee – all attended Churchill County schools. He has a sister in Minnesota and another sister, who’s 97, in Anaheim, Calif.
Road to becoming an officer
More than midway through the Korean War, Heying left the Leyte en route to Naval Air Station Hutchinson, Kansas, where he attended a maintenance squadron school. The air station, which opened during World War II but closed afterward, reopened from 1952-58. From there, Heying and the other sailors learned the intricacies of the Navy’s P2V Neptune, a maritime patrol aircraft that could lift off from a carrier deck. In 1955, he was assigned to an airborne early warning squadron at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Planes flew from 3,000 to 12,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean’s choppy seas to search for Soviet aircraft.
In 1960, Heying attended Officer Candidate School at Newport, Rhode Island, for three months. He received his commission as an ensign afterward when he was serving at U.S. Naval Support Activity Naples (Italy).
During the early 1960s, Heying had a seat looking down at history.
“We flew all over the world,” he interjected. “We were involved with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, we flew out of Iceland to Greenland … Iceland to Scotland.”
Heying still remembers the horrible Icelandic storms.
“Iceland’s weather was so bad. When you left the (Bachelors Officer Quarters) to the officers’ club for dinner, you would call ahead,” Heying recalled.
Sailors would tightly grab a rope in navigating their way from the BOQ to dinner and then do the same afterward back to their sleeping quarters.
“There were people lost in the wind and snow freezing to death,” he lamented, saying many sailors lost themselves in space.
Heying also knows the perils of flying in a combat zone. During the Vietnam War, he rode in the cockpit’s right-hand side as a navigation officer in an EA-1F Skyraider. He spent two tours of six months each reporting to Vietnam.
Heying and the pilot had one dangerous flight over North Vietnam.
“We had a plane that went down in the Hanoi area. We (the pilot and he) went up there and didn’t realize the Northern Tach had moved further north,” Heying recalled of one experience. “We didn’t find the pilot.”
War’s lasting impact
As one of nine Korean War veterans who participated on an October Honor Flight Nevada trip to the nation’s capital, Heying not only learned more about the Korean War and its memorial on the Washington Mall but he and his two sons – Jay and Chris – also visited the Vietnam Wall.
Heying searched for the name of his colleague on the wall with the help of others. The two former shipmates last saw each other on the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard
“He was the skipper of Fighter Squadron VF 45. He was shot down while I was there (in Vietnam),” Heying said of Capt. Homer Leroy Smith.
The North Vietnamese Army downed Smith and captured him. He died in captivity; his body wasn’t returned to the United States until March 1974 and identified a month later.
Jay said his dad’s memories at the Vietnam Wall were more vivid.
“The raw emotions,” Jay described, then remembering another traveler at the wall. “One lady (on the Honor Flight trip) had to leave.”
Heying comes from a Navy family with four brothers and two brothers-in-law sailing the Seven Seas. As a result of being drafted in August 1945, Heying still received the World War II Victory Medal to go along with his Korean War Service Medal and Vietnam Service Medal.
On the Honor Flight, Heying and his two sons saw the Korean War Memorial before walking to the Vietnam Wall.
“He (a Korean tour guide) gave an outstanding speech of the wall and how he became involved with it,” said Jay Heying, Ernie’s oldest son.
The memorial received a fresh look with the names of the war’s killed and missing in action engraved in granite located near a field of 19 life-like soldiers on patrol. A marble wall flanked one side of the field. Jay and Chris accompanied their father as he glanced up and down at the engraved inscriptions of more than 43,000 military men and women who were killed on the Korean peninsula.
Heying, though, considered himself as one of the lucky ones from that war, which was originally considered a police action.
“I think I was one of the only one from an aircraft carrier,” he said of his time spent in the Korean War. “The rest were on the ground.”
Heying felt the aircraft carrier provided more shelter from the weather.
“I had three squares and a flop,” he recalled.
While they were visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial, they met a friend of Jesse Brown’s wife, which led to the Heyings trying to find the aviator’s name on the memorial.
“We found Jesse Brown’s name and did an etching of it,” Jay said.
Nevada U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei met the Honor Flight group and presented each Korean War veteran with the Ambassador for Peace Medal.
Ernie Heying had his own harrowing flights as an electronic warfare navigator during Vietnam, but the harsher conditions during the Korean War tested the aviators resolve more than Vietnam’s hot weather and rains.
“Korea was more challenging, a different category,” Heying remembered.
The homecomings for each war differed. Veterans, for example, rarely talked about returning to the United States from Vietnam because of the protestors … that is until the veterans and guardians arrived at the Baltimore Washington International Airport on Honor Flight. People — civilians and military personnel from the local installations — lined up to welcome the veterans. Many waved the Stars and Stripes; others held up signs. The unexpected show of support choked up many of the passengers including the Heyings.
“They gave such a reception,” Jay said. “I was impressed with the greeting at Baltimore and here in Reno (upon the veterans’ return). The people were really appreciative of us.”
Jay said the patrons at the restaurants and shops also gave respect to all the vets.
During the four days in D.C., Honor Flight also took the veterans to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Ernie and fellow vet Vera Baker received the gift of a lifetime: They placed an Honor Flight Nevada wreath at the tomb. The veterans and the overall Honor Flight experience have remained with Jay months after the trip.
“What I like is how devoted they are to make this happen,” Jay said of the Honor Flight volunteers who organized the flight. “How devoted they are to make this happen — a well-oiled machine.”
The final tour
Heying’s final stop on his career brought him to Fallon in 1968 where he helped set up the electronic warfare range at Dixie Valley. He retired four years later.
“Today’s planes are a lot faster than what they were,” he said when describing the new advances in the range. “We now need larger areas to maneuver.”
Leaving the Navy a half century ago set the Heyings on another course of their life. He retired in July 1972 as a lieutenant commander, and the family remained in Fallon. A new career path after retirement took him to Silver State Electronics and then to his own business as a realtor/broker with Independence Realty. He even became a small-plane pilot and aficionado of the Reno Air Races.
During the past five years, Ernie has suffered two strokes, but he hasn’t allowed his health to affect him. His mind is still sharp as he recollects almost every detail of his service.
“We need to have these guys tell their stories,” Jay said, “or future generations will never understand or know.”