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Rogue Valley residents find unlikely connections with WWII pilot

Staff at the Medford library learned this month just how small the world can be.

While helping research the history of a World War II pilot buried in Belgium at the request of a European grave caretaker, two library staff members encountered bizarre connections they had to the pilot.

Danny van der Groen, a young man from the Netherlands with a hobby of adopting old graves, contacted a Portland library in early January for information about his latest adoptee, an American World War II pilot who died overseas.

After learning the pilot was from Southern Oregon, the Portland library passed the request for information to Medford.

"Danny was looking for information about an airman, Richard Hewitt," said Holly Hertel, the Medford reference librarian who took the request. "His grave, which is in a Belgium cemetery, only had the date of his death and that he lived in Oregon."

Hertel said she started by seeking out Hewitt's relatives, and stumbled upon the obituary of his father, Earl Hewitt.

While reading about the elder Hewitt's death, Hertel discovered the home he was living in was the same house she and her partner live in today on South Keene Way Drive in Medford. Hertel's partner had bought the house 12 years ago with no knowledge of its history.

"It's so interesting to find out where our houses come from," said Hertel.

But the house was only the first coincidence in the story, Hertel said.

As she continued to research the Hewitt family and any living connections, Hertel came across a list of relatives, including the name Marian Barker, a niece-in-law of the pilot.

Sure enough, Barker is also a library employee, who works on the floor below Hertel at the Medford branch.

"As soon as she said Hewitt, I knew it was Larry's family," said Barker, referring to her husband, Larry, the pilot's nephew.

Marian Barker, the youth services supervisor at the library, said her husband and his family had heard stories about the pilot and always wanted to learn more about his life and death.

Richard "Bud" Hewitt had dreamed of being an Air Force pilot but was denied because he had once broken his leg in a motorcycle accident, Larry Barker said.

Instead he worked the system by joining the Army first and later transferring to the Air Force, serving as a co-pilot in 26 bomber missions during World War II, Barker said.

After a few years in the service, and with the war nearly over, Hewitt's plane was shot down during his 26th mission. He died on April 4, 1945, near Perleberg, Germany.

"It was within weeks of the end of the war," Barker said. "My uncle didn't survive the drop."

Barker said he hadn't heard too many stories about Hewitt's life, which ended when he was only 24. He knew Hewitt had ridden a motorcycle and sported a pencil-thin mustache before enlisting in the Army at 21.

"We didn't talk about him a lot," said Barker. "I know it (his death) was really hard on my father."

Since finding out that van der Groen was tending his uncle's grave in a Belgium cemetery, Barker said the two have begun exchanging emails.

Van der Groen said he was intrigued to find out the coincidences between the library staff and the pilot whose grave he had adopted.

"I was pretty surprised when I got the email from Holly Hertel," van der Groen said via email from the Netherlands. "It is great to have contact with (Larry) and the family."

Hewitt's grave was the third military grave that van der Groen had adopted since starting his hobby last year, he said.

"He said he just wanted to do something nice," said Barker. "He was very surprised to learn all of this."

Hertel said that without the library existing, van der Groen would have never learned so much about the grave he was caretaking.

"People come from all over the country calling us for obituaries, but this was the first from out of the country," Hertel said. "We just love doing this."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.

From left, Holly Hertel and Larry and Marian Barker search through photos of World War II pilot Richard Hewitt, with whom they discovered they had connections once they started researching his past for a Netherlands man who adopts old graves. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell