CAPITOLA -- It took nearly 70 years for Gertrude McHale to discover that her late husband, Clayne Heywood, had saved 45 men from a sinking ship in World War II.
"I sat there with tears rolling down my face," McHale said. "I couldn't believe it."
The U.S. Navy awarded Heywood, Boatswain's Mate First Class, a Bronze Star Medal in 1944 for his heroics, but he never told his wife why.
McHale, who lives in Capitola, said her husband never talked about his war experiences, and gave the impression that the medal was not significant.
McHale applied for a military pension this year after enduring two hip surgeries. She was denied a pension, since Heywood died in 1960 from a heart condition he had had since childhood and therefore unrelated to his military service, McHale said.
However, the application process led her to her husband's military records, where she learned for the first time about Heywood's heroics aboard the USS Lanning, a rescue boat, in submarine-infested waters north of Bermuda in May 1944.
The sinking USS Fechteler had been torpedoed, leaving its men afloat in the water.
Realizing the imminent threat of another torpedo or explosion aboard the ship and without regard to his safety, Heywood jumped from his rescue boat and swam to save 45 men who would otherwise have perished, according a Navy report.
Heywood strung rafts and floater nets to his rescue boat and towed the men to a nearby tugboat, narrowly missing an underwater explosion that undoubtedly would have killed them, according to the report.
McHale said she cried for three days after making the discovery.
McHale, a frail 92-year-old, shuffled to the kitchen table of her Capitola mobile home, where she kept 40 love letters from her husband written during the war.
"I almost felt like I wasn't a very good wife because I didn't know," McHale said. "It just didn't seem possible. I was totally shocked."
Looking back, McHale said she now sees a different tone in the letters he wrote to her after the rescue.
"I just noticed more of a desperation to get home," McHale said. "He missed me so much."
The couple met at San Jose High School, when McHale was 15. Heywood, two years older, enlisted after graduating but stayed in touch. They were engaged three years later.
In 1941, Heywood was on a one-week leave when he decided he wanted to elope. Heywood hitchhiked from Norfolk, Va., to San Francisco where she was working at a telephone company to ask McHale what she thought about the idea.
"I went home, got some clothes and we went to Reno and got married the next morning," McHale said. "We had to eat apples all the way home because we didn't have any money."
McHale said Heywood wanted to get on with his life after the war, and never spoke about it. He became a carpenter and was building apartments in San Jose when he died at the age of 40.
McHale said she remembers her husband for his warmth.
"He was a wonderful father," McHale said. "He loved children."
In 1954, the couple adopted their son, Chris Heywood. He died in June 2000, but his son Scott Heywood lives in Scotts Valley with his wife DeAnna.
Scott Heywood, a technician at Capitola's Toyota dealership, said the discovery of his grandfather's heroics didn't change his perception of him.
"I've always just thought so highly of him from the beginning," Scott Heywood said.
After the war, Clayne Heywood volunteered for the Willow Glen Optimist Club, a nonprofit serving low-income children. When he died, the club created a yearly award in his name, given to the best youth swimmer at the Santa Clara Swim Club.
"I love my husband so much and I just want everyone to know what a wonderful person he was," McHale said.
Follow Sentinel reporter Kara Guzman at Twitter.com/Karambutan
©2013 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com