Post Independent Staff
Marble resident Bettie Lou Gilbert never met her father: The 27-year-old Marine Corps pilot, Capt. Rex Murrell Heap, was killed when a Japanese shell scored a direct hit on his bunker on Oct. 14, 1942.
Gilbert’s mother, Lucille, was living in La Jolla, Calif., and was six months pregnant with Bettie Lou when the news came that her husband had been killed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands north of Australia. Exactly three months later, on Jan. 14, 1943, Bettie was born.
Now, more than 60 years later, Gilbert is getting to know her dad posthumously. About 10 years ago, she joined the American WWII Orphans Network (AWON), which put her in contact with veterans who knew and fought alongside her father.
And this Memorial Day weekend, Bettie and her husband, Ray Gilbert, traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the AWON National Conference, and the formal dedication of the National World War II Memorial (see related story, page 2).
Gilbert said she tells her story, not for others to feel sorry for her, but to understand what the consequences of war can do to families.
“I’ve had a really good life,” she said. “But it’s good for people to know that once war is over, and people are happy to see men come home, it isn’t always that way. There are children and women who don’t have someone coming home.”
One soldier’s story
Born and bred in southern California, Capt. Rex Murrell Heap was a young track star who competed in the Junior Olympics as a teen, and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley before he joined the Marines in 1938. He became a pilot and dive bomber stationed at Quantico, Va., and later, near San Diego, Calif.
Lucille Lytle and Rex Heap married on Nov. 25, 1939.
“They were young and in love,” Gilbert said of her parents.
Gilbert said her parents were out buying a puppy with another couple when they heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Heap was soon hunting submarines off the coast of California.
He left for the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific in August 1942, stationed first on New Caledonia, and in October, at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. It was there in a dugout that Gilbert’s father and five other staff officers, who were taking shelter under a heavy steel plate, were shelled by a Japanese battleship. The shell, which Gilbert said was 14-inches in diameter, struck a nearby tree and exploded, piercing the steel plate and killing everyone in the bunker.
When Gilbert’s grandfather received the news of his son’s death, he went out in the yard.
“My cousin told me that my grandfather just wailed like a dog,” she said.
Gilbert said that, while she was growing up and even now, her mother doesn’t talk about her father’s death.
“It’s just too hard for her,” said Gilbert.
‘Lives in my memory’
Even with the tremendous sadness that goes with losing a loved one, happiness found Lucille Heap and her daughter after Heap’s death. Lucille met and married Col. Harry P. Wheaton, a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Air Corps in Europe and Africa.
Lucille and Harry Wheaton, both 89, are retired and live in Texas.
Wheaton adopted Gilbert when she was 10. And the couple had a child, Gilbert’s half-sister, Susan Osterberg.
“I knew I had two daddies,” Gilbert said. “There was Daddy Rex and then there is my stepdad. My stepdad is a wonderful father, never treating me any differently than he would his own child, and a great husband to my mother. I’ve sensed my stepdad has always felt he has a special obligation to my father.”
Gilbert said it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that she started feeling she wanted to know more about her father ” who he was, what part he played in World War II, and how he died. That’s when she discovered American World War II Orphans Network, and began finding her father’s service records, and details like what kind of plane he flew, what squadron he was in. She even started getting in touch with people who served with him.
“Be assured, Rex Heap was a fine officer and a true gentlemen, and served his country honorably in the United States Marine Corps,” wrote Col. James H. Clark, a retired Marine Corps officer who served with Heap, in a letter to Gilbert in 1999.
“I have thought of him many times over in the past 50 years and more and pondered the ill stroke of fate that took his life. He lives in my memory and will for as long as I live. I hope that I can stand in front of my Maker on Judgment Day with as much going for me as Rex had that fateful day in Guadalcanal.”
Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518
American WWII Orphans network (AWON)
AWON is a nonprofit humanitarian organization open to any son or daughter of a member of the Armed Forces, Coast Guard or Merchant Marine who was killed, went missing, or died while on active duty during World War II or as a result of wounds. Friends of those killed or those who wish to participate in AWON activities and meetings are also welcome to join. Contact: 5745 Lee Road, Indianapolis, IN 46216, 540-310-0750, http://www.awon.org.
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