KITTERY – When Rep. Walter Wheeler’s term in the Legislature ends in December, it will mark the close of a historic era. The 84-year-old Democrat from Kittery is likely to be the last World War II veteran to serve in either chamber of the Legislature.

On June 6, 1944, Wheeler was aboard the S.S. Hadley F. Brown, anchored just off the coast of France, with its guns aimed at Normandy and half of Adolf Hitler’s army. It was D-Day. Wheeler, then 18 years old, sat behind a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the bow of the ship, vulnerable to the gunfire directed at the Navy fleet.

At a Memorial Day ceremony Saturday at Fort McClary State Park at Kittery Point, Wheeler recalled the bursts of light on the cliffs above the beach where the Nazis were firing at American soldiers.

“The sky was black and gray with bomb bursts,” Wheeler told the crowd. “Mostly, you just kept firing. Hot brass 3-inch shells would spit out of the guns all over you but you kept firing. The sky was dark with black bits of metal falling out of it on you, but you kept firing. Sometimes you couldn’t hear anything, but you kept firing.”

Wheeler served on ships in the Pacific, Atlantic and European theaters of World War II. He was honorably discharged in April of 1946 and went on to serve four years in the Naval Reserves.

On Monday, Wheeler and his wife, Geraldine, will be grand marshals of the parade in Kittery, which commences at Orchard Grove Cemetery.

A retired machinist and instructor at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Wheeler makes time to honor veterans by speaking to students about the war. When he’s is not in legislative session, he greets troops at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. On Wednesday, he greeted a soldier returning home from Iraq.

“The boys really appreciate it,” Wheeler said.

Come December, he’ll have more time to spend with his wife and their eight children, volunteer with veterans groups, travel and baby-sit his 22 great-grandchildren.

Wheeler is nearing the end of his fourth term as legislative representative for District 151. He will be 85 when he is termed out of the House at the end of the year.

Over the past eight years, Wheeler has sponsored and co-sponsored bills to help Maine veterans and improve transportation safety. He has been a tireless advocate for seniors and recently created a bill that will help seniors reduce their property taxes by volunteering in the community.

He also serves on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

As the oldest member in the House, Wheeler said he also approves the vacation time for all representatives.

“They treat me like a king,” he said.

Wheeler said he will miss it.

“My wife is ready for me to go,” he said. “My children and my grandchildren want me to enjoy life a little more. I have to keep peace in the family. I did my years. I have enjoyed representing the people and helping them out.”

On April 12, the last day of the of the legislative session, Rep. Herbert Adams, D-Portland, acknowledged Wheeler’s service during the war and the distinction that he is likely to be the last World War II veteran to serve in the Legislature.

For the past month or so, Wheeler has been receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for lung cancer. He says his doctors are optimistic, and he feels good.

Wheeler has also been campaigning with Devin Beliveau, a history teacher at Thornton Academy, whom he recruited to run for his House seat.

Travis Kennedy, chief of staff for the House Majority Office, said many at the State House encouraged Wheeler to switch chambers and run for the Senate.

“We tried like heck to keep him around,” Kennedy said. “We are happy for him, but we are sad to see him go.”

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

mcreamer@pressherald.com