Norman R. Hameister took his uncle's advice and enlisted in the Navy, rather than face the likelihood of the Army drafting him into World War II.
His Uncle Charlie knew all about the Army and marching into harm's way. He had served in the killing fields of World War I.
"I had about two years of high school at Hutch-Tech and quit to join the Navy at 17. My uncle signed the early enlistment papers," said the 91-year-old Hameister, whose parents had both died before the Second World War.
But while the uncle's intentions were good, Hameister still ended up in the Pacific, often under enemy fire. Working a power winch to unload supplies from ships in the harbor at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, he and his shipmates were frequently harassed by Japanese planes.
"We all had rifles and we would fire right back at the planes," Hameister said. "But I don't know if I ever hit one. They were flying low and you could hear the shells hitting the ship. It was loud."
The enemy also routinely bombed runways used by American warplanes, and Hameister and other Seabees rebuilt the air strips.
"They'd bomb the runways at night and we'd be out the next morning fixing them with our heavy equipment."
Norman R. Hameister, 91
Residence: City of Tonawanda
Branch: Navy Seabees
Rank: Electrician's mate second class
War zone: Pacific
Years of service: 1942-46
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars; Solomon Islands Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal
Specialty: Construction and cargo transport
Hameister’s duties also brought the opportunity to meet a future president. “When I was loading cargo onto a PT boat, I met the boat’s skipper,” he says. That skipper was Lt. John F. Kennedy, who went on to become a war hero for saving members of his PT-109 crew after a Japanese destroyer crashed into the boat, sinking it and killing two of the Americans. “I said ‘hi’ to him when he came aboard a ship that I was unloading supplies from. If I’d known he was going to become president, I would have shaken his hand,” Hameister says.
On another occasion, Hameister says, he met Byron R. “Whizzer” White, a football star who went on to be named by Kennedy in 1962 to the U.S. Supreme Court. White, who died in 2002, served as a Navy intelligence officer in the Pacific and wrote the report on the sinking of PT-109, but details of his encounter with Hameister have been washed away by time.
What Hameister has not forgotten is that he was never struck by enemy fire, despite many close calls.
"I'm just thankful," he said. "A lot of guys were wounded and some were killed."
Back home in Buffalo after the war, he says he took up the trade of carpentry.
"I was a trim carpenter and helped build homes in the Riverview section of the City of Tonawanda."
In 1950, Hameister married Elaine Fouchie, and they raised two sons, Russell and Todd.
When he wasn't building homes, Hameister played an active role in the community coaching youth baseball and football teams for about 25 years.
And along the way, he was awarded his high school diploma. But it gets better than that. His war experiences turned him into something of a high school history teacher, frequently invited into local classrooms to share the history he had lived during World War II.
"The students would ask if I had been wounded, stuff like that," he said. "It was wonderful to share what we had gone through in the war."