Click Here to LISTEN to Mert Wiedmann on Hometown Heroes
92-year-old Mert Wiedmann of Shafter, CA appears on episode #447 of Hometown Heroes, airing November 25-27, 2016. A licensed pharmacist for nearly 70 years, Mert continues to use his expertise on a part-time basis at Bullard Pharmacy in Fresno, owned and operated by his daughter, Lynn Taylor. Lynn was six months old when her dad came home from World War II, and she never would have met him if he hadn’t survived the dangerous duty of flying into typhoons as a Navy aerologist.
Wiedmann was born in Shafter and has lived there throughout his life, with the exception of his college years at UCLA and USC, and his time in the Navy during World War II. You’ll hear him remember growing up on the family farm, joining his three brothers in the cotton fields. This was during the Great Depression, and the boys were elated to earn 75 cents a day in area vineyards, cutting grapes off the vine to dry for raisins. “Everybody was broke,” he recalls. “We didn’t know any different.” The Wiedmanns had no telephone, no electricity, and would barter some of their homegrown beef for 100-pound blocks of ice to handle their refrigeration needs. Shafter was a town of less than 1,500 during his high school days, but the football rivalry with nearby Wasco was already a fiery tradition. Listen to Mert’s interview to hear one unforgettable moment he helped produce in a down to the wire Generals vs. Tigers matchup, and how he ended up briefly participating in the football program at UCLA. Many of his high school friends had lied about their age and enlisted in the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but Mert, the student body president, was determined to finish high school and go to college.
After Typhoon Cobra, also known as “Halsey’s Typhoon,” wreaked havoc on the Pacific Fleet in December, 1944, claiming 792 American lives with the sinking of three destroyers (Click here for episode #56 with Pat Douhan, who survived the sinking of the USS Hull in the typhoon), the Navy decided it needed more detailed information on future typhoons. “These typhoons would form at the equator and move north northwest,” you’ll hear Mert recall. “We had no satellites, no way to determine where these storms were.” Wiedmann was sent first to Hawaii, then to Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where he would become a typhoon hunter, seeking out the destructive weather patterns, then flying into the storms with fully-crewed PB4Y-2 Privateer bombers.
“I became the first Navy weather officer to fly in a typhoon on purpose,” Wiedmann explains.
They would search in different directions every day, and when they came upon a typhoon, they would have to fly into it to try to determine where the center of the storm was.
This would lead to pretty nightmarish conditions aboard the four-engine bomber. When they entered the typhoon one-thousand feet above sea level, they’d encounter rain so thick that they could barely see out of the cockpit windows.
“It’s raining, it’s dark, bouncing up and down, your head is just going from one side to the other,” you’ll hear Mert recall. “Everybody in the plane gets sick.”
The turbulence would subside when they entered the eye of the storm, but they could see the destructive force of the waves underneath, and they knew they would have to go back through the severe weather on the way out. “I was scared to death,” Wiedmann confesses, adding that he felt worse for the bomber crews, which would likely prefer flak and fighters to the treacherous weather. “They thought it was certain death to go into one of them.”
Mert’s approach in those tense, terrifying moments was simple. “You learn to pray,” he explains. “You’re just praying for yourself and the crew.” As frightened as he was, Wiedmann says he’s reluctant to talk about his adventures in the Navy or take any credit for what he went through, because he’s aware of how many Americans endured even more harrowing conditions in battle. “It doesn’t compare to what those young 18-year-old kids went through on those beaches,” he says of the invasions in Europe and the Pacific. “And people ought to know about that, and not forget what those kids sacrificed.” He does know that the typhoon reconnaissance work that he and others carried out did lead to lives being saved, and he was relieved to make it back home to the U.S. He joined Patricia in pharmacy school at USC, and later took over Stringham’s Shafter Drug Store from her parents. At age 50, Mert became a licensed pilot, and would fly between the seven different drug stores he owned across California. At about the same time that he lost his wife in 2008, Patricia’s cousin Nola lost her husband, who happened to be a brother of famed actress Jane Russell. Mert and Nola decided to marry, and one of their recurring dates is the 200-mile round-trip from Shafter to Fresno so Mert can put his pharmacist’s license to good use.
He enjoys the work, Wiedmann says, and he knows that his daughter appreciates the wisdom and assistance of a 92-year-old pharmacy veteran.
“As long as she wants to do it, and as long as I can do it, I’m going to help her,” he says.
Try not to distract the bespectacled man behind the counter, but if you catch Mert wandering out to peruse the unique gifts and greeting cards, or the stacks of Dewar’s taffy in the candy section at Bullard Pharmacy, make sure you thank him for his service to our country.