Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

Friends and Neighbors: Tom Hewitt


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A 1962 graduate looking for adventure and unsure what he wanted from life joined the United States Navy. Tom Hewitt found his adventure on the decks of a diesel submarine and learned some valuable lessons along the way.

"I have always loved the water and I always knew I was going to join the service, this was before Viet Nam," he said. "Out of boot camp I went to electrician's school for quite a while and then they sent me to New London, Conn., and that is where the submarine school is."

He said that shortly after he arrived in New London, in 1963, the USS Thresher sunk 80 – 100 miles off the coast and many men quit the school, leaving the Navy short on submariners.

"That is where most of the guys that go in are weeded out," he said. "They have a 100-foot tower full of water. They put some of us in a tube inside that tower and they begin pressurizing that tube until the pressure matches that at the bottom of the tower, 44 pounds per square inch."

The would-be submariners are lowered, in that tube, to the bottom of the tower, where they exit the tube via a hatch and begin the 100 foot ascent to the top of the water filled tower, according to Tom.

"What you have to do is blow air out the entire way up," he said. "If you don't, you will blow up. They have frogmen who will hit you in the stomach to make you blow. I never needed that. It really didn't bother me."

Tom said the absolute darkness inside that tube and claustrophobia made most men panic.

"If you went into class with 50 men, you might come out with 20 or 30," he said. "I did okay in my school, but what I wanted was adventure and I got it on the diesels."

"We rode out every storm on the surface, including hurricanes," he said. "I rode a couple of hurricanes out on the surface."

Diesel submarines cannot be submerged for long periods of time, after 36 hours you would run out of oxygen. He spent the long days on board working, often six day on followed by six days off, because the crew was short submariners.

"You learned to sleep when you could and try to be awake when you were needed," he said.

After serving on a couple of submarines, Tom was transferred to the USS Triton, as the submarine became the second nuclear sub to circumnavigate the world submerged – a feat which is written in history when the USS Nautilus made the first round-the-world trip submerged.

"It was a monster, a huge, huge submarine," he said. "I went around the world submerged except for the time we were in port to fix a nuclear reactor. I didn't like it, this was kind of boring for me."

He spent five months on the USS Triton, serving in whatever capacity he could – even as a mess cook.

"They just needed me as a general hand. They were short on submariners and they wanted me because I had been in the service for so long," he said. "We were chased around in the waters up by Russia during the cold war. We were very close to the shore, probably 500 yards. That was probably a scary situation, but I never really was scared – I was young."

He returned home in 1966, got a part time job and began taking classes at the University of Nebraska, but as a young drinking man, he got into some trouble.

"There were peace protesters. Me, being the type of person I was, we didn't like that. So some of us would wade into them and beat them," he said. "In those days it was a misdemeanor, if that would have happened now I would be in prison."

Tom quit school and in 1970 it was strongly suggested that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous, and he said he stumbled in and out for several years.

"Finally, in the early 80s, I got sober and have stayed sober. Being sober was key," he said. "I never drank until I went into the Navy. I found out I really liked alcohol. Every time we got to port everybody got drunk, and it was a big deal in those days to drink and fight. It was like the movies you saw years ago, it really was. I became an alcoholic in the military, I'm not blaming the military at all. Now I have been sober for over 30 years. Maybe someone will get the message and it's worth it if it just helps one person."

After working a high stress job for more than a decade, he quit his job and out of boredom he began carving antlers, painting and sculpting at his home in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

A freak flood cost the family the majority of their belongings in 1993. Tom, his wife Karen and their daughters Brandy and Dawn headed west.

They were thinking about Colorado, but when they got to Kimball Tom fell in love with the town.

I have been here almost 25 years, and I just love this town, you couldn't get me out of it. I love the people," he said. "Here is the best part of my story, I think. Everything that happened to me was God's will and is was exactly what I needed. Pastor Hod told me once, there are two things you have got to remember, the first one is God is in control and the second one is that God's in control. And I believe that."

"I got in trouble a couple of times, always because of my drinking, but one time I got in trouble for giving a case of steaks away to these little kids that were begging our garbage down at the docks. I have seen starving kids all over the world and it is horrible," he said. "I think if you want to sum this story up, I am convinced that this is the greatest country on earth and I have two things that I live for and that is God and Country."

Today, at 73 years old, Tom is still enjoys being here in Kimball and continues selling his art as he has for years. He and Karen are the proud grandparents of six and Tom gives all the glory to his Creator and Savior.

"But for the grace of God," he concluded.


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