He quit high school in the late 1930s and tried to join the U.S. Navy, but at only 4 feet 11 inches tall, he was told he was “too small” to enter naval service. Quietly and humbly, he would not be deterred. A few years and a few inches taller, he tried again. This time, he was in.
Over the course of the next 80 years, Stu Hedley never lost his humility. Although he remained small in stature, he became a giant of a man.
Just shy of his 100th birthday, Stu left us. His impact on all those whose lives he touched, however, will never be forgotten.
“We are so grateful for the time we had with him,” said Kathy Hansen, the retired command master chief of the USS Pearl Harbor who was a friend of Stu and his family for more than 20 years. “He always told me that 20 to 30 hugs a day will make you live a happy and long life.”
On Oct. 29, 1940, his 19th birthday, Stu arrived at his first assignment, the battleship USS West Virginia. A little more than a year later, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia was in port at Pearl Harbor. Stu and several of his shipmates were in Gun Turret 3 when the ship was attacked by Japanese bombers.
An explosion ripped through the gun turret, killing a number of his shipmates. Narrowly escaping death, Stu had to swim around and under flaming oil while he dodged shattering glass and flying shrapnel before being rescued.
“That was the hottest breath of air I ever breathed in my life,” remembered Stu. “I grew up in a hurry that day.”
Stu was reassigned to the cruiser USS San Francisco and over the next 16 months, he would be involved in 13 major combat engagements.
“We often remember Stu for what he did on Dec. 7, but his legacy really began on Dec. 8,” said Mac McLaughlin, president and CEO of the USS Midway Museum. “The freedoms of America were under attack and he would fight back to protect them. Stu manned up”
“Freedom is not free,” Stu often said. “Freedom is gained at a price.”
After retiring from the Navy in 1960, Stu worked for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District until 1981. He and his wife Wanda raised five children.
Stu was very active with veterans and community organizations, and served several terms as president of the local Carnation Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Over the years, he made hundreds of appearances before school and church groups, military commands and civic clubs. By his count, Stu estimated he spoke to more than 200,000 people ensuring they didn’t forget what happened at Pearl Harbor.
“Stu’s life helped make San Diego a better community for all of us,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. “He was truly a special human being and lived an absolutely incredible life. We can always use a few more people like Stu.”
Stu was Veteran of the Year for 2005 and received the Midway American Patriot Award in 2015.
“I will miss Stu’s hugs and his spirit,” said Mac. “But his legacy will live forever.”