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Thomas Orlo Heggen
U.S. Navy, December 1941 - December 1945
Navy Veteran, Author, Playwright. Thomas Orlo Heggen's novel "Mister Roberts" (1946) was conceived during WWII while Heggen served aboard several USS Navy ships. The play "Mister Roberts" opened on Broadway in February 1948. The story resonanted with a generation of young men who had given years of their lives in service to the country they loved.
The hero of "Mister Robers," Lt. Douglas Roberts, is a young officer aboard the USS Reluctant, a fictional Navy cargo ship stationed in the backwaters of the South Pacific during the final months of World War II. Roberts yearns for a battleship assignment but finds himself defending his crew from a tyrannical Captain and supporting their daily struggle against maddening boredom. Heggen wrote that the Reluctant ran "from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony." Filled with humor, pathos, and vivid characters, "Mister Roberts" became one of the most popular stories about The Greatest Generation's WWII experience.
Orlo Thomas (Tom) Heggen was born on December 23, 1919 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Tom's grandparents were born in Norway. His parents were raised on small Iowa farms, with large extended families nearby. As a child Tom dreamed of going to college and becoming a writer. An older cousin, Wallace Stegner, encouraged Tom to dream and maintain his passion for writing.
During the Depression the Heggen family relocated to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where Tom's father found work. Tom graduated from Classon High School in Oklahoma City in 1936. After highschool, Tom attended public colleges in Oklahoma before enrolling at the University of Minnesota. Tom majored in Journalism and wrote a weekly column in "The Minnesota Daily," blending humor with opinions on campus and national issues. As a college student, Tom was deeply moved by Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and admired authors Earnest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1941, Tom was hired by Reader's Digest as an Editoral Assistant. On 12-15-1941, immediately after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Tom enlisted in the US Navy. He was commissioned as a Navy Lieutenant on 8-3-1942. Tom served as a Communications Officer, responsible for supervision of radio and signal communications, during most of the war. He also served as a Division Officer on a Cargo ship, the USS Rotanin (AKA 108) in 1944, before joining the USS Virgo, an Attack Cargo ship, in July 1944. Heggen served in the Atlantic before joining the Pacific fleet, participating in campaigns at Guam, Pleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Heggen received the American Threat Commendation and American Defense E.T.O, Pacific- 4 stars. Heggen served on the following ships: USS South Dakota, USS Salinas A019, USS Agawam AOG, USS Rotanin AKA108 and USS Virgo AKA.
After being discharged from active to reserve duty in December 1945, Heggen returned to New York and began revising and connecting his stories into a novel. "Mister Roberts" was published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1946. By 1949 more than 850,000 copies of "Mister Roberts" had sold.
Tom Heggen collaborated with Broadway Director Joshua Logan to write the play version of "Mister Roberts." The play opened on February 18, 1948 at Broadway's Alvin Theater and ran on and off Broadway for many years. Henry Fonda was the first Mister Roberts and was perfect in the role. WWII veterans who attended performances of "Mister Roberts" saw themselves and their friends in the play. There were critics who objected to the play's bawdy language but Heggen felt that the story would lose it's authenticity if the sailors voices didn't ring true.
On May 19, 1949 Thomas Heggen was found dead from an overdose of Barbiturates. Heggen suffered from severe insomnia, dating back to his service days, and used Barbiturates to fall sleep. He was receiving medical treatment for Insomnia and Depression at the time of his death.
Thomas Heggen's wallet was returned to his family after his death. It contained a photograph of the USS Virgo. Apparently Heggen retained a great fondness for that old Iron Bucket and his shipmates.