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Former sailor charts course for Navy reunion

October 01, 2006|by MARLO BARNHART

HAGERSTOWN - When Robert Riedel learned that the 2006 reunion of the men who served aboard the USS Hector was going to be in Hagerstown, the 94-year-old Michigan resident knew he had to be there.

After all, Hagerstown is his hometown.

"I was born in Hagerstown in 1911, and lived here until I was 25 years old," Riedel said.

He might never have left, but his new bride wanted to move to Michigan to be closer to her family.

The reunion began Wednesday at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center Antietam Creek and ends today.

About 230 people were expected to attend the five-day reunion, with about 130 of those attending being former sailors.

Riedel and his son, Arthur, have been attending reunion events, and meeting up with former shipmates and sharing stories.

Riedel and a shipmate, Wesley Niccolls Sr., found each other Wednesday and spent a lot of time catching up - they hadn't seen each other for more than 60 years.

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Niccolls, who lives in Arlington, Va., admits to being 88 3/4 years old. He served on the USS Hector from 1944-45, and is what is called a "plank owner," which means he was on the first crew after the ship was commissioned.

"I just missed being a plank owner," Riedel said, although he served the same two years, but not from the very beginning when the ship first headed into the Pacific for duty.

Designated an auxiliary repair vessel, the USS Hector AR-7 was commissioned Feb. 7, 1944. The ship was involved in repair jobs during World War II, then participated in the Inchon Invasion during the Korean War. It was decommissioned in 1987.

"We were a floating shipyard," Niccolls said. Either the USS Hector went to the ship needing repairs, or seagoing tugboats brought the damaged ship to them.

Though both Riedel and Niccolls were serving aboard a repair ship, it was the height of World War II, and danger often lurked beneath the waves.

"We had submarines after us sometimes," Niccolls said.

Still, all wasn't grim aboard ship. Riedel said he had the job of running the movie projector - a talent he made use of later in life when he was back home in Michigan.

"I got to see Tyrone Power once when I was working at a theater in Ithaca, Mich.," Riedel said.

Whenever he comes back to Hagerstown, Riedel, now a widower, visits with a cousin, Frances Harshman, and rides around to see some familiar sights from his youth.

This trip, Riedel visited the Western Enterprise Fire Co. and Antietam Creek, where he said he spent time.

"Lots of places aren't there anymore," Riedel said, such as the Dixie Diner on Summit Avenue, the old Academy Theater and the train station that once stood where The Herald-Mail Co. is now.

When he isn't going to World War II reunions, Riedel keeps busy volunteering for the American Red Cross, both during bloodmobile visits and when families need emergency shelter.

Arthur Riedel, a retired music professor who now lives in Louisiana, said his father is quite independent and fit for his age. Father and son drove to Hagerstown together from Michigan, and are planning to head back there today as the reunion draws to a close.

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