Hector Asselin – a very Vineyard life

Hector Asselin at the counter commissary at what is now the airport. — Courtesy MV Museum

Hector Asselin, a member of “the greatest generation,” who served his country in war and touched all who knew him with his kindness of spirit, died as he lived, peacefully on Friday, March 21, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital after a brief illness. He was 93.

On September 26, 1942, just seven weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, Hector enlisted in the Navy and set about the chain of events that would make Martha’s Vineyard his home for the next 72 years. He and 12 buddies shipped out by train from Providence, Rhode Island, to a school in Detroit, Michigan, to be educated in how to train sailors and gunners to identify Japanese and German warships and warplanes. Following gunnery training, in 1943 he boarded the ferry Naushon in New Bedford, for an unknown destination. It was not until they reached an airbase that he and his companions were told they were on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. The base, now the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, would eventually house approximately 500 servicemen.

Hector enjoyed his job as an Aerial Gunnery Trainer running movie projectors, so much so, that he set up a small movie theater, complete with stage, 16 mm movie projector and projection booth. He ran old-time movies for the guys at night. It was such a success that when Quonset Point “got wind of it” they notified the Vineyard airbase to tell them that they would be sending over 35 mm projectors with the latest releases, as they came right out of Hollywood. Hector was in his glory. He remembered Clark Gable being in the first film that he showed.

Hector had found his niche and decided to set up another theater on the base with an even bigger screen, so that the servicemen could bring their girlfriends to the movies.

The ramshackle World War II-era structures that served the Vineyard’s air traveling public for decades are now gone. But from 1943 to 1945 young men from every corner of the country took to the Island’s skies in Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers, on the way to combat in the Pacific. In most cases, the Grumman Avenger carried a crew of three: pilot, turret gunner, and a radioman who armed the torpedo.

During WW2, the servicemen left this base with the best training possible to deal with their mission ahead. Upon returning to the base, they could look forward to some rest and relaxation before preparing for the next mission.

In an interview for a story published in The MV Times (May 25, 2000, “Martha’s Vineyard to Tokyo: Memories of Sacrifice Echo in Torpedo Squadron Chronicle”), Hector recalled those days.

“A number of boys were young fellas from the city and a number from the country,” he said. “Some were not very happy, but the country boys seemed to like it.”

In the first years of the war, many pilots and gunners were rushed into combat without much experience or training. He recalled planes falling from the sky for one reason or another.

One particularly sad incident occurred on the day the end of the war was announced and people were coming to the base to celebrate. A young pilot flew by as his parents and girlfriend looked on.

“I was eating dinner at the time and heard the plane. I looked up, out the window, and doggone the plane broke in half,” said Hector. “He was killed right there in front of them.”

“It was a danger every time they sat in that plane,” he added. “They didn’t have to be at the front.”

The USO was located on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, where Cronig’s Real Estate is now. It was there that he met Eva May Allen, a local girl, in 1944. While courting Eva, he would walk each night from Daggett Avenue, Vineyard Haven, back to the airbase in West Tisbury. “One could hear a pin drop,” he recalled.

After the war, Hector was honorably discharged on April 18, 1946. He married Eva Allen on April 26,1946. Their marriage would last 58 years, until Eva’s death in 2004.

Hector Asselin was born in his childhood home on State Street in Warren, Rhode Island, on November 16, 1920, the son of Beatrice Nelson Miller and Hector Asselin Sr.  As a young boy, he attended Warren Public Elementary School, Saint Dunstan’s School in Providence, and he completed his high school education at LaSalle Academy, also in Providence. As a young man he showed an interest in music and began playing the harmonica — a talent that never left him though many never knew that he had.

They moved into their first home, a rented apartment, in the old Chapman house, which was where the parking lot is today next to Brickmans on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Hector started his first job working for Bill Toth as an upholsterer’s helper. He then went on to work for E.T. Walker Paint Contractor on the Vineyard Haven corner of Spring and Main — now the site of the Beach House. The young couple welcomed a son, Douglas, on March 27, 1947. For a couple of summers, Hector had the privilege of working under Erford Burt at Burt’s Boatyard on Lagoon Pond Road, known today as Maciel Marine in Vineyard Haven. He enjoyed every aspect of working on the boats and the excitement of meeting customers that included James Cagney.

Around 1948, he went to work at the Dukes County Garage, which was at what is known today as Five Corners in Vineyard Haven. He did everything from pumping gas and auto maintenance to preparing new cars for sale. Detailing cars would forever be a favorite pastime.

He was working one day at the garage in September 1949 when a fellow employee persuaded him to take a walk “up the hill” and attend a house auction. Reluctantly and unprepared, Hector went. Once there, he decided that he did indeed want to bid on the house, but unfortunately he had no money.

Much to his surprise, his parents had decided to make an unannounced visit to the Island, and they were delayed in traffic due to bidders in the street. Hector could not believe his eyes when he looked over and noticed them sitting in their car less than 40 feet from where he was standing. With a $200 deposit borrowed from his parents, he was able to purchase the beautiful, stately house on the corner of William and Spring Streets that would be home to him and his family for the next 65 years.

The family of three became a completed family of four with the birth of daughter Amy on October 26, 1951.

Hector took great pride in his family and his home, doing most of the home maintenance, repairs, improvements, and yard work for as long as he was physically able — never tiring of always wanting to “improve the property.”  In his late 80s, it was not uncommon to see Hector standing atop a ladder cleaning the leaves out of the gutters on the garage.

In November 1958, Hector was hired to work in the Vineyard Haven Post Office as a postal clerk. The post office at that time was in the building which now houses Rainy Day. Hector became a familiar face behind the counter for many years. He retired in 1983, after 25 years, finishing at the relocated site at Five Corners.

He often reminisced on how life “back in those days” was much more slowly paced. Everyone knew everyone back then, he said, especially in one’s own town. Hector and his family, like most other Island families, didn’t very often venture outside their home town, unless it was for something special on a weekend, such as a wedding, fried clams in the Bluffs, watching the planes land in West Tisbury at the airport, or an ice cream sundae at the Corner Drug Store in Edgartown.

That long anticipated family drive from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown in search of ice cream could be made without ever seeing another car. He reflected fondly upon an era when people would and did stop by the workplace and chat.

One of Hector’s fondest memories was when Mary Martin, who starred as Peter Pan in the Broadway musical, stopped by the post office and asked if he would whistle for her. She had been told that he had the most unique whistle, and he did. Hector loved to whistle, and he perfected that whistle with the most melodic trill. If angels ran out of harps, Hector’s whistle would be the perfect substitute. It was beautiful. And much to the delight of them both, and all who listened, Hector whistled for Mary.

Hector was proud to be an American. He served as commander of the American Legion Post 257. He is credited for volunteering to paint the Tisbury Town Hall, the Tisbury Town Hall Annex, and the D.A.R. building. He was solely responsible for singlehandedly digging holes and pouring cement for 40 flag mounts in front of stores on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, and soliciting those stores to buy 40 flags. It was a proud day when he, with the much appreciated assistance of the local Boy Scout Troop 91, under the leadership of scoutmaster Jerry Goodale, placed those flags in their mounts for the first time on that Memorial Day back in the 1970s and started a tradition that would continue with flags being displayed on every American holiday from that day forward.

He also had a deep concern for preserving Island history. On one occasion, Hector called Doug Cabral, editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times. An antique horse watering trough that had been moved once already from Brickman’s Clothing Store on Main Street down the road to Memorial Park was in danger of being destroyed. Through his phone call and his efforts, this piece of Island history was preserved and moved to its present location, at the top of the hill next to the Vineyard Haven “stone” bank, now owned by Santander of Spain.

It was not uncommon to see Hector cutting bushes down for the town anywhere from the Owen Park Bandstand to the Tisbury overlook on State Road. He volunteered his time and services. He trimmed hedges around the Police Station and cleared out brush and rocks from in between the Capawock Theater and the Taxi Stand/Bowl and Board building, where Bunch of Grapes Bookstore is now, making the area passable for foot traffic.

From 1962 to 1971, a debate raged over clearing the land for town parking behind the “book store.” There was a maple tree that was in danger of being destroyed. Hector insisted that tree not be cut down. And so it remains there today. Years later on occasional walks from his home down to the Steamship Authority, Hector would pass by that tree and give it a tap, as an old friend would pat a friend on the shoulder. And, he would say, “Ah, it’s a fine tree.”

Hector loved life, he loved the “olden days,” he loved his friends, church, community, he loved his family, he loved his country, and he loved this Island. As he so eloquently put it, he “felt so blessed to have been stationed here.” And we were so very blessed to have had him in our lives.

Hector is survived by his son, Douglas M. Asselin and his wife, Sandra Kenney of Vineyard Haven; and his daughter, Amy Asselin Lawry and her husband, Harold B. Lawry 3rd of West Tisbury; three grandchildren,  Douglas Asselin of Vineyard Haven, Harold B. Lawry 4th and his wife, Melissa of West Tisbury, and Lindsey Lawry Resto and her husband, Carlos Resto of Sharon; and two great-grandchildren, Harold B. Lawry 5th and Noah D. Lawry of West Tisbury; his sister-in-law Roberta A. Morgan and her husband James of Chilmark; a cousin, the Rev. William Romer and wife Molly of Acton and his son, Bret, and two daughters, Sarah and Jennifer and their children and many much loved nieces and nephews, as well as many friends and acquaintances. He was predeceased by his wife, Eva, and his granddaughter, Rachael Fawn Lawry.

A funeral service for Hector will be held at 11 am, Saturday, March 29, at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven, with the Rev. Ellen P. Tatreau and the Rev. Roger Spinney officiating. There will be a graveside service on the West Spring Street side of the Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven, with full military honors by the veterans of Martha’s Vineyard. A gathering at the American Legion Hall will follow. All are welcome.

Donations in Hector’s name may be made to the First Baptist Church, P.O. Box 806, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568; the American Legion Post 257, P.O. Box 257, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568; Meals on Wheels, P.O. Box 2337, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.

Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Home, Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, Oak Bluffs. Visit ccgfuneralhome.com for online guestbook and information.