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Missouri veteran served aboard ship that searched for famed 1930s aviator

Missouri veteran served aboard ship that searched for famed 1930s aviator

December 3rd, 2018 by Jeremy P. Amick, news@newstribune.com in Local News
<p>Hoechst is pictured while in basic training in the summer of 1936 at the reopened Great Lakes Naval Training Station.</p><p>Courtesy of Judy Thompson</p>

Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series highlighting the naval experiences of the late Fred Hoechst Jr. Read the second part here.

Coming of age in a community of St. Louis referred to as the "Patch," Fred Hoechst Jr. graduated from high school only to discover the employment difficulties presented in the grim period known as the Great Depression. The scarcity of jobs not only motivated the young man's enlistment in the military, but placed him aboard a naval vessel that would help search for a famed American aviator who went missing.

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Naval records preserved by Hoechst's family indicate the 21-year-old made the decision to embark upon a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy on May 5, 1936. The first stop in his new career choice was traveling to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago for his boot camp.

"The Great Lakes Naval Training Station, closed two years ago, will be reopened with colorful military ceremonies on July 29," reported the June 1, 1935, edition of the News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan). The paper went on to explain "230 enlisted Navy men and 60 marines will arrive to make up the permanent personnel."

Several weeks later, finishing his training at the newly reopened naval training site, Hoechst acquired his first experience as a sailor when assigned to the USS Colorado — a battleship commissioned years earlier, on Aug. 30, 1923.

Records accessible through the U.S. Navy indicate from "1924-1941 (the) Colorado operated with the Battle Fleet in the Pacific, participating in fleet exercises and various ceremonies "

Joining the crew while it was stationed with the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hoechst began his climb through the enlisted ranks by working from apprentice seaman to becoming a fireman third class in June 1937, learning to operate and maintain the boilers that provided the steam power for the vessel.

The month following his promotion, the USS Colorado arrived at Honolulu as part of a one-month training cruise for Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps students from the University of California and Washington, in addition to carrying a number of distinguished guests. However, their plans were abruptly delayed by the disappearance of a celebrated female American aviator.

On the morning of 1 July, 1937, (Honolulu Time) Mrs. Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Mr. Fred J. Noonan, took off from New Guinea for Howland Island in the Lockheed plane known as a flying laboratory," William L. Friedell, commander of the USS Colorado, reported in a report dated July 13, 1937.

In the years previous, Earhart merited the reputation as a living legend through her many aeronautical accomplishments. It was on this trip, however, that the aviation pioneer planned to achieve her greatest triumph by flying around the world.

On July 2, 1937, the day after her departure from New Guinea, "word was received in Honolulu that the Earhart plane had not arrived at Howland Island," Friedell further reported. Hours later, the USS Colorado received instructions to depart Pearl Harbor to participate in the search for the missing aviators.

"AMELIA LOST! This was the newspaper headline thousands of Americans woke up to on July 3, 1937," Candace Fleming wrote in her book "Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart." She added, "And for the next ten days, the lost flier stayed on the front pages as people grasped for any tidbit of information."

The USS Colorado was soon placed in charge of all vessels involved in the search. Although Hoechst was one man aboard a ship of more than 1,000 sailors, their impromptu mission did not prevent him from earning a time-honored designation that was bequeathed to sailors making an important oceanic crossing.

While engaged in the hunt for the lost plane, Hoechst and a group of his fellow sailors underwent the transition from "pollywog" to "shellback" on July 7, 1937, which meant they were initiated during a special ceremony in recognition of their first time crossing the Equator.

"The USS Colorado arrived off Pearl Harbor early yesterday afternoon after participating in the Amelia Earhart search and after taking aboard supplies ," reported the Honolulu Advertiser on July 17, 1937. Although the ship discovered no traces of the aircraft, the disappearance has for decades remained a topic of investigation and debate.

While aboard the Colorado, Hoechst traveled the world during Pacific and European cruises. His records reveal he not only enjoyed sightseeing activities in his off time, such as the New York's World Fair in 1939, but he also passed through the Panama Canal with the U.S. Fleet — comprised of 140 ships and 60,000 sailors — in the early weeks of 1940.

Hoechst remained in the Navy until March 1940 at which time he was discharged at the rate of watertender second class. Having survived the closing months of the Great Depression while in the Navy, the veteran returned to St. Louis, was married and went to work for the National Lead Company in southeastern St. Louis.

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However, months prior to his discharge, Germany invaded Poland, which led to a stiffening American military posture and increased levels of national spending, helping to spur an economic recovery.

Despite the improving economic conditions, when Pearl Harbor unfolded the following year, the former sailor made the decision to leave his civilian employment and leap into the fray, applying the skills he developed while serving as a sailor in the peacetime naval forces.

The sailor has since died and is no longer able to share through firsthand recollections his military experiences, yet the words spoken by President John F. Kennedy at the U.S Naval Academy in 1963 seem to summarize the fulfillment Hoechst acquired through his seafaring adventures.

Kennedy remarked, "And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.'"

Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.

Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series highlighting the naval experiences of the late Fred Hoechst Jr. Read theĀ second part here.