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Stories of Honor: Korean War veteran Jim Heffernan started local Toys for Tots
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Stories of Honor: Korean War veteran Jim Heffernan started local Toys for Tots

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HELENA -- Jim Heffernan is one of Helena’s most beloved patriots. A volunteer and advocate for nearly everything to do with veterans, he’s probably best known for the local Marine’s Christmas “Toys For Tots” program, which he first organized in 1978.

And it all started almost 70 years ago, when Heffernan decided to answer the call U.S. Marine Corps Capt. William Jones made in 1779, “For a Few Good Men.”

Heffernan graduated from Campion Jesuit High School, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1953. He started college at St. Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, Indiana, before enlisting at the age of 19.

“The main reason I enlisted is because I believed it was important to stop Communism, and I had to find out for myself if I had what it takes to do something about it,” Heffernan, 86, related.

He served for 13 months in Korea, originally assigned to Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Cpl. Heffernan then volunteered for the 1st Provincial DMZ Police Company, 1st MARDIV, where the Marines searched a 150-mile stretch of battlefields below the demilitarized zone.

“I was with the 81 mm mortars platoon, about a mile south of the 38th parallel, assisting in clearing the mines,” he recounted. “The whole area was mined extensively, it was a very tenuous mission. The North Koreans would take empty cigar boxes, fill them with dynamite, bury them randomly and hook them up to trip wires.”

Heffernan carries the memory of a couple fellow Marines dying from explosions. After 13 months “in country,” he returned stateside in 1955.

He went back to college briefly, prior to employment with police departments in Kenilworth, Wilmette and Evanston, Illinois. During this time he completed more training, at the Northwest Traffic Institute and the Chicago Police Academy.

But after a couple years, Heffernan “got bored” and joined the U.S. Coast Guard in May 1961.

His first assignment was Ketchikan, Alaska, with narcotics detail. Heffernan served as the 17th Coast Guard’s rifle/pistol instructor and coach, teaching marksmanship in Kodiak, Alaska. He was also a member of the team that competed in the lower 48 states.

In 1972, Heffernan transferred to the Spencer (WHEC-36), a 327-foot CG cutter anchored at Governors Island, New York. His duties included training chief for the officers, keeper of classified material, and training officer in the field of celestial navigation.

Next the Spencer and a convoy of three to four vessels picked up the Coast Guard senior cadets from New London, Connecticut. The ensuing cruise across the Atlantic and back lasted 3 1/2 months. He visited the Azores; the English Channel; the coasts of Ireland, England, Denmark and Germany; and the North, Baltic and Irish seas.

On the Baltic they came across a floating mine from World War II, but “the bow watch took care of it.”

In 1974, Heffernan earned the Coast Guard achievement medal for starting a successful law enforcement academy on Governor’s Island – he was ordered by Vice Admiral William F. Rea III, “Don’t fail me!” – which drew instructors from the FBI, NYPD and its bomb and hostage squad, FDNY, Nassau/Suffolk and Jersey City.

During “Op-sail” of 1976, when dozens of tall ships from around the world sailed into New York Harbor to celebrate the Fourth of July, Heffernan’s unit provided security and garnered the Coast Guard Commendation.

On July 1, 1978, Chief Petty Officer Heffernan retired from the Coast Guard after 24 years in the military. He and his wife, Joanne, then loaded up their three children in the back seat of their 1978 Ford pickup super cab “Conestoga wagon,” and without knowing anyone here, drove out from New York City to start a new life in Montana’s capital city.

Much of Heffernan’s work resume before his second retirement had to do with law enforcement in and around the surrounding area. He’s also been involved with multiple volunteer projects and fundraisers.

He served as both the Marine Corps League’s commandant and Veterans Affairs service representative; and the Montana Veterans Administration committee representative, as well.

But perhaps his crown jewel has been as organizer and coordinator of Toys for Tots, for 29 years. In 2003, Heffernan was selected as National Coordinator of the Year for the program.

So “Semper Fi,” Marine. And “Semper Paratus,” Coastie.

Curt Synness, a Navy veteran, can be reached at 406-594-2878, or curt52synness@gmail.com. He’s also on twitter @curtsynness_IR

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