By Jessica Tuggle
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY -- When a bugler sounds "Taps," Americans mourn the loss of a soldier, but also celebrate the freedoms given to them because of the service and sacrifice of veterans they will probably never have the opportunity to meet.
That haunting musical piece was part of the final send-off for World War II veteran Ernie Heaton, 89, last week, after his death from cancer on Nov. 26.
Mr. Heaton, a former U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman, was one of the last known, still-living survivors of the famed 1943 USAT Dorchester sinking. His experience in that tragedy led him to support an effort to raise a monument in memory of the fallen heroes of that fateful night.
There were a little more than 900 men onboard the ship when it was struck by a German torpedo on Feb. 6, 1943. Mr. Heaton was one of 230 rescued from the ocean that day, but in recent years, when members of the community heard him speak, the true heroes from that night were four men without lifejackets, four chaplains from different faiths and denominations.
Mr. Heaton and other local veterans, including his dear friend, Larry Wapnick, spoke passionately about the sacrifice of the chaplains, who gave up their lifejackets and stayed onboard the ship, literally giving up their lifelines to save others.
That sacrifice inspired them to design and raise funds for a monument to be placed in the veteran's memorial area of Riverview Park in Sebastian.
The monument was more than two years in the making, and though physically weak, Mr. Heaton was able to see it dedicated this past Memorial Day, Mr. Wapnick said.
"He was part of the World War II generation, the greatest generation," Mr. Wapnick said.
Though he was in his "golden years," Mr. Heaton still had much wisdom, insight and knowledge to give to anyone who took the time to ask, Mr. Wapnick said.
"The World War II generation, though they are in their golden years, they are still a valuable source of information for us, especially about patriotism. Ernie was able to accomplish, do and overcome so many things, and the monument shows that," he said.
Mr. Wapnick said this past year he took Mr. Heaton to see the monument several times and on at least one occasion there were other people there visiting the site.
"People that were there were thrilled. They couldn't believe they were talking with a survivor," Mr. Wapnick said.
Though his body had been failing him the past two years, the goal of seeing the monument completed and appreciated by the community was something that inspired him to keep going.
"Ernie told me, 'God kept me alive all these years to fulfill and build this monument for interfaith in action. Those four men have been with, watching over me all these years,'" Mr. Wapnick recalled.
An interfaith funeral service was held on Dec. 5 at Thomas S. Lowther Funeral Home and was officiated by four members of the clergy, a priest, a rabbi and two protestant ministers, reminiscent of the four chaplains Mr. Heaton so admired, Mr. Wapnick said.
Mr. Heaton was given graveside military honors at the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth on Dec. 6.
Mr. Heaton is survived by his son, Terry of Missouri, and his daughter, Christy Flatniske of Ohio.