Scout’s Honor: World War II Veteran Maury Hyder

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2013 10:43
Maury Hyder

Maury Hyder, 91, at home in Twain Harte

“Every time I felt a ripple in the clear blue water, my heart skipped a beat,” Maury Hyder remembers.

He and the crew of the SS Edward Luckenbach had been in the water off the Florida Keys more than 15 hours, and for much of that time sharks circled their two lifeboats and the men hanging on to the sides.

The Luckenbach had loaded gunpowder and ammunition in January of 1942 and sailed to the South Pacific. The converted freighter passed through Pearl Harbor while the fires from Dec. 7, 1941 still burned, and eventually unloaded its cargo in Australia.

On the return voyage, the ship had gone through the Panama Canal and was headed to New Orleans when it entered an uncharted American defensive minefield, struck two mines and sank.

Gunner’s Mate Second Class Maurice J. Hyder didn’t panic. He understood wind currents and navigation, could tell where he was anywhere in the world by gazing at stars, and certainly possessed the experience and the survival skills to get through the ordeal in the Gulf of Mexico – for more than half his 20 years he had been an avid Boy Scout.

Mohican role model

“When I was about nine,” recalls Hyder, now 91 and living in Twain Harte, “I was certain I had been an American Indian in a previous life. That was the year I read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans for the first time.”

A love of the outdoors and the ability to stay calm in tight situations were two things he had in common with one of the novel’s main characters, Chingachgook.

Born to Lebanese-American parents in 1922 in Springfield, Mass., Maury was fluent in both Arabic and English as a child. He spent his youth outdoors in the woods around Connecticut’s Housatonic River Valley.

By age 14 he was a Life Scout and on track to his Eagle rank. He and eight fellow senior scouts joined a new Sea Scout troop that met on the U.S.S. Constellation, an 1854 frigate-of-war based at the U.S. Naval Training Station at Newport, Rhode Island.

When they were high school seniors in 1939, the training station’s admiral challenged Hyder and his friends to a crew race against new recruits. After the scouts soundly outrowed the recruits, the admiral told Hyder and his buddies they could use the training station’s patrol boat for excursions if they joined the local Naval Reserve unit. So they did.

Little did Hyder know his scouting background would save his life many times, carry him through war, and enable him to serve presidents in countries around the world. Nor did he know that in October 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would call his Naval Reserve unit to active duty.

Hyder and his fellow Sea Scouts weren’t allowed to finish their senior year at Rogers High School. When called to duty, Hyder had earned 24 scout merit badges and was working on Bird Study, the final badge that would make him an Eagle Scout, a cherished goal he would never achieve.

Their first duty was laying mines along the East Coast, and from there the same nine friends from Rogers High volunteered for the Armed Guard and became a gun crew. And that led to the Luckenbach and the minefield.

 

Maury Hyder

Maury (center) with fellow Scouts

A matter of survival

Because he was the Luckenbach’s gun crew commander, Hyder chose to spend more time in the water than in the lifeboat. Crewmen in the boat held his arms during the night so he didn’t drift away.

“Floating fuel oil burned our noses and mouths when we were in the water,” he recalls, “but there wasn’t much we could do about it.”

Nearly 48 hours after the ship sank, the crew, with only one fatality, was rescued and taken first to Key West and then to New York for reassignment. The friends from Newport were split up and assigned to other Navy ships.

The war years were eventful for Hyder, who served from start to finish. In June 1943 the Liberty ship he had just boarded was torpedoed two hours outside of New York as it was about to join a supply convoy headed to Russia. Both the ship and Hyder survived, but the two-hour voyage was his shortest shipboard assignment during the war.

Later the same year, he completed a convoy taking war supplies to Russia aboard the USS Hannibal Hamlin (named for Abraham Lincoln’s first-term vice president), amid U-boat attacks all the way across the Atlantic. “We must have lost half the ships during the crossing,” Hyder recalls. “It seemed like each day another one would be sunk.”

As the Hannibal Hamlin neared Russia, Nazi Stuka dive bombers out of Norway strafed and bombed the convoy.

“They came at us day and night because it almost never got dark up there,” Hyder adds. “I fired my 20 mm machine gun at them all the time, but I don’t know for sure if I ever hit any.”

Although shrapnel at times fell like rain on the Hannibal Hamlin, the ship made it across the Atlantic and home again in one piece.

Perhaps Hyder’s most harrowing experience came in the Pacific in June 1945 aboard the USS Duluth, a light cruiser attached to Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s carrier fleet. The fleet had just completed air attacks on Japanese-held airfields on Okinawa and Kyushu.

The enemy was the weather, and once more Hyder’s scouting skills came in handy. On June 5, a typhoon overtook the Duluth and the rest of the task group, pounding it with gusts up to 115 miles per hour.

“As we rolled to one side we would count …3…4…5, marking the seconds before the ship would roll back the other way,” says Hyder. “We were certain on one of the rolls we would keep going and capsize.”

Hyder tied bowlines and helped secure men inside rope loops lashed to bunks and tables. He remembers aluminum plates flying like missiles across the mess hall.

“It was terrifying,” he says. “We were sure the ship was going to go down. Prayers were shouted and men cried out from broken arms and legs…we took more casualties in the typhoon than any other operation I was on during World War II.”

The typhoon claimed six lives, damaged 33 ships and destroyed 76 airplanes. The Duluth suffered major damage when its bow buckled, opening a 35-foot seam.

Hidden dangers

When the typhoon finally passed, the Duluth and several other severely damaged ships made their way to Guam for repairs. Americans had recaptured the island the previous August, but Japanese holdouts in the hills were still shooting at the men working on ships.

Shortly after the Duluth arrived, a spotter located a holdout near a bamboo hut, and Hyder’s gun crew was sent to capture him. They surrounded the hut, went inside and found a woman on the floor crying “I’m hurt, I’m hurt.”

“When I moved down to see where she was hurt, a trap door opened up and a Jap came out with a knife.”

Hyder reached up quickly to grab the man’s wrist but grabbed the knife instead, slicing open the palm of his own hand.

“Right then I kicked him in the balls, rolled over, grabbed the knife and stuck him in the stomach,” recounts Hyder, adding, “I’m sure he had threatened the woman into acting as a decoy.”

“During the war I shot at a lot of planes and ships, but that is the only enemy soldier I’m certain I killed.”

Once the repairs were complete, the Duluth and Hyder finished the war providing support for the final assault on Japan and entered Tokyo Bay in September 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender.

Two more years would pass before Hyder completed his second four-year tour of duty. When discharged in 1947, he returned to Connecticut, where his family was then living.

Middle Eastern education

By then, Israel was on the cusp of nationhood. Hyder’s Lebanese heritage led him to the Syrian-Lebanese Club of New Haven, where he argued the Arab side of the Palestinian problem. The GI Bill then led him first to Yale and then to New York University.

While earning a BA in political science from NYU, Hyder gained a measure of notoriety as a campus expert on the Middle East. After professors encouraged him to study the questions of the region firsthand, he applied to and was accepted at the American University of Beirut.

In 1956 a master’s degree in international law from AUB was his stepping-stone to the State Department.

His first post was as a property officer at the embassy in Beirut, a job few wanted or could keep because tribal chieftains were so difficult to work with. But Hyder’s natural advantages bred success: He spoke their language and still had relatives in the village where his father had been born.

On a blind date in Beirut he met Sheila Howard, the daughter of an Irishman from Boston who ran Chase Manhattan Bank operations throughout the Middle East. Mr. Howard at first was not pleased his daughter had fallen in love with a man who was older and certainly not Irish, but her mother spoke up for Hyder, and the romance grew.

Hyder was next posted to the embassy in Benghazi,
Libya. “Sheila was still in Beirut, and I was a bachelor,” Hyder recalls, “so the crown prince, to get away from his wives and concubines, would come to my house on Friday nights to play poker.”

In 1957 Hyder returned to Beirut to ask Sheila to marry him. After a honeymoon in Egypt, the couple returned to Benghazi where their first son, Mark, was born a year later. A second son, Craig, was born in Beirut in 1959, and his daughter Sharon was born in Afghanistan in 1961.

 

Maury Hyder

Maury and Sheila en route to honeymoon in Egypt

Global postings

His 20-plus years in the State Department took Hyder and his family from Libya to Afghanistan, Vietnam, Brazil, Nigeria and the Philippines. He became fluent in seven languages. And at each posting he found adventure, solved problems and supported international scouting.

In 1970 he was assigned to Manila, working as a disaster relief and rehabilitation officer attached to the American Embassy.

Five years later, working from Manila, Hyder helped organize the evacuation of Saigon, processing civilians, GI’s and Vietnamese refugees through Clark Air Force Base on Luzon. And still, there was scouting.

“In whatever country I was stationed, I had a scout troop,” Hyder says proudly. “Sometimes it was for the children of embassy employees, sometimes for the kids in that country, sometimes a troop for each.”

In 1977, shortly before retiring, he organized an International Camporee on the island of Corregidor. “We reenacted the Bataan Death March, and nearly every country that had been a belligerent in World War II sent scouts – close to 3,500 Scouts in all.”

After leaving the State Department, Hyder brought his family to a Mi-Wuk Village home on property his in-laws had purchased in 1960. Successful at everything he had tried during his 55 years, he failed at retirement. In 1979 the State Department lured him back with an offer to work from his home in Mi-Wuk procuring materiel for projects worldwide.

For another dozen years, Hyder says, he worked under the direct supervision of the executive branch of the government, ordering and distributing everything from medical supplies to weapons. Did he work with Ronald Reagan? Yes. Did he work with Oliver North? Yes.

But much of his time, he says, was devoted to combatting AIDS in Africa, procuring supplies and hospital equipment for countries across the continent.

‘A plane just hit one of the towers’

On September 11, 2001, Hyder was driving from his home in Mi-Wuk to the Sonora Elks Lodge to give a breakfast talk on the Middle East. His cell phone rang. On the other end was his son Craig, calling from Manhattan where tragedy was unfolding in front of him.

“You gotta hear this,” Craig shouted into the phone. “A plane just hit one of the towers. There’s debris coming down and people jumping out of the building.”

Hyder realized the U.S. had been attacked. That afternoon he received a call from the State Department, asking current and former Middle East experts to come to the capital to discuss what action should be taken. Flying to Washington that night, he joined 30 or 40 other experts, most of whom supported an invasion of Afghanistan.

“I argued against it,” he recalls. “I told those gathered, ‘The people who caused this are not the people you’re going to kill. They’re spread throughout the Middle East. All we’ll do is lose money and blood over there.’”

“I told them you should never fight Asians on the Asian continent or Muslims in their own backyard. I had seen what happened in Vietnam, and I didn’t want to see it again.”

Hyder was thanked for his input, and after four days of meetings returned to Tuolumne County.

Forever a Scout

Hyder has seven grandchildren with whom he shares his life and his dreams. His wife died in 2001. He is a prostate cancer survivor, doesn’t see very well and has a little trouble hearing. But his pride in scouting and his gratitude for its lifelong influence are as strong as ever.

A bit wistfully, he recalls a 1976 phone call from Hank Byroade, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

“Maury,” Byroade asked, “when did you receive your Eagle Scout rank?”

“Why are you asking?”

“Some people high up in the State Department want to present you with the Distinguished Eagle Scout award,” the ambassador replied.

Byroade told him that William P. Quasha – MacArthur’s legal advisor, who waded ashore with the general when he returned to the Philippines and was a Distinguished Eagle Scout himself – was pushing the nomination.

“Nothing would have made me prouder,” Hyder admits. He knew the award was only given to those who had been Eagle scouts for at least 25 years. “I considered what was being offered and how much such an honor would mean to me.”

“A scout is trustworthy and loyal, and above all else he must be honest,” he told the ambassador. “I was called to active duty in 1939 when I was working on the last merit badge. I never did receive my Eagle rank.”

He asked Byroade to advise Washington accordingly.

A review of the criteria for the Distinguished Eagle Scout award says recipients must have received recognition or eminence within their field. They must have a strong record of voluntary service, and they must have distinguished themselves on a national level.

No merit badge, minefield or enemy of America ever kept Maury Hyder from doing all of that.

Copyright  © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2013 10:43
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1 Comment

  1. Mark Schmutzler November 23, 17:36

    I recently came across this article, written in June of 2013, while researching interesting people that I have known. I knew Maury Hyder when I was a young District Executive with the Boy Scouts in Washington D.C. Maury was a dedicated Scout leader and a member of my District Committee. Maury had finished his Wood Badge course before he went to Brazil and when the award came in I mailed them to the Embassy in Brazil. The Embassy, along with the Boy Scouts of Brazil staged an elaborate ceremony to present the “beads” to Maury. Maury was always one of the most colorful members of the District. I have fond memories of those long gone by days.

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