As a boy growing up in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood, Charles E. Heim recalled how his father, a native of Germany, had nurtured a deep love for his adopted country by sowing the seeds of patriotism among his children.
“He taught us kids the words to ‘America The Beautiful,’ and we’d sing it at home,” Heim recalled of his father, Marcus.
As a young teen, Marcus Heim had come to America with an aunt, escaping a cruel father and seeking the opportunity to get ahead. Residing on the East Side’s Chester Street, Marcus soon mastered English by attending night school. His plan was to pursue a career as an electrician, but when America entered World War I, he gladly entered the Army, knowing that his two brothers were serving in the German army.
“My father went out on night reconnaissance patrols, and they’d crawl up to the front lines on their bellies and he would listen to what was being said in German. Any information he got, he shared it,” Charles Heim said of his father’s nocturnal spy missions.
While Marcus went unscathed during those nighttime crawls into No Man’s Land, he was wounded twice in battle.
“He was hit by a machine gun bullet in the Battle of the Argonne Forest and he was also gassed,” said Heim, who summed up his dad’s wartime duty by saying, “He was all for America.”
The same was true of his four sons, starting with the oldest, Charles.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Charles immediately tried to enlist.
“I went down to the recruiting station but they wouldn’t take me because I had a cold. I went back a week later with my dad when I was better and passed the physical,” Heim said of his entry into the Navy.
In time, Heim’s three brothers, Marcus, Joseph and Francis, also enlisted.
Marcus Heim Jr. became a paratrooper and was honored with the second highest military medal, the Distinguished Service Cross, for destroying three tanks on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
As for Charles, his first assignment was aboard a 110-foot wooden ship, the USS SC 639, part of the “Splinter Fleet” that patrolled for German submarines. His boat started in the Atlantic Ocean, up and down the East Coast, occasionally venturing into South American waters.
“We had depth charges mounted on two racks on both sides of the stern, but we never got a chance to use them in the Atlantic because we didn’t have sonar.”
That changed when they were sent to the Mediterranean Sea, escorting troop convoys. With the probing sound waves from their sonar unit, the crew started launching depth charges into waters in the hopes of knocking out lurking enemy subs.
“We never had any confirmed kills, but we saw plenty of action. There were lots of air raids. The German planes coming back from missions would be maybe 100 feet above us. One time a German bomber couldn’t have been more than 50 feet above us. You hung onto your deck gun and kept shooting. One time we got one of those planes.”
During various invasions along the Italian coast, Heim said his crew met troop ships three or four miles off shore and escorted landing crafts onto the beaches.
“We provided cover for the landing crafts by shooting at the German planes. When the troops landed, we would get out as best we could and do it over again if we were needed,” Heim said.
After the war ended in Europe, he returned to Buffalo on a 30-day leave, then took a train to the West Coast and was temporarily assigned to shore duty at a prison “for all kinds of miscreants who had gone AWOL or gotten into serious trouble with the law. Some of them were in for murder.”
Heim recalled that he and the other guards were given rifles and belts of ammunition.
“We were told not to load the rifles, but the first thing I did was put in a full clip of ammo. We’d been told not to let any of them escape or we’d be on the other side of the fence. Kind of drastic, huh?”
After that, Heim served in the South Pacific aboard the USS Lassen, an ammunition supply ship.
“We were a floating bomb. We resupplied submarines with torpedoes, and battleships with sixteen- and twelve-inch shells. We carried mines, too. Any kind of ammunition they needed or wanted, we usually had.”
One evening, a fire alarm sounded on the Lassen, sending a shock wave through the crew.
“We opened up several hatches. The alarm was two decks down and fortunately there was no fire. Everyone had been running around.”
Heim, however, wasn’t whipped into a panic. He said he knew there was no point to it.
“I’d seen an ammunition ship blow up in the Mediterranean. There was nothing left of the ship. It’s a big bang and there’s no safe place.”
After the war, Heim served on a fuel tanker and twice circumnavigated the world, providing fuel to Navy ships and shore stations before he was discharged in 1947.
Settling into civilian life, he married the former Helen Horgan in 1949 and a year later they began raising a family. But that same year, 1950, Uncle Sam put Heim’s patriotism to the test and reactivated him for service in the Korean War. Heim answered the call, though it wasn’t easy.
“My first son had just been born, and he was home from the hospital two days and I had to leave.”
Heim served 15 months on a minesweeper along the equator in the Atlantic Ocean, where the ship conducted hydrographic surveys and helped identify potential sites for guided missile systems.
When he finally was released for good from the military, Heim returned home and found work at various factories before landing a permanent job at the Chevy motor plant on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda. He retired from there at age 68.
Of his duties in the military, Heim said, he often thinks of those who never made it home.
“We lost lots and lots of good men.”
Charles E. Heim, 92
Residence: North Tonawanda
Rank: 1st class petty officer
War zone: World War II, Atlantic, European and Pacific theaters
Years of service: 1941–1947; reactivated 1950–1952, Korean War
Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal