survivor is self-taught scientist
By Andi Petrini
The Alamance News
A Graham resident who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
in December 1941 is publishing a book explaining some of science's
Frank Helderman's book, "Dust: A Mechanic's View of Earth,"
is a compilation of more than 50 years of research and discovery
that began while he was a member of the U.S. Army during World War
II. It is being published by Dorrance Publishing Company in Pittsburgh
and will be available locally mid-August, he says.
Helderman sits in his office next to his home surrounded by books
with titles such as "A Brief History of Time," "Microcosm"
and the complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. After suffering
from a stroke in 2000, his speech and memory aren't as sharp as
they used to be, he says. It takes him a few minutes to find the
words he needs to explain what he wants to, but listening to him,
his intelligence is clear. To remember dates and places, he pulls
the World Almanac of World War II off his shelf. Then he says, "Let
me begin by starting on this route to find answers to some problems."
Helderman entered the Army in 1937 at the age of 16. He started
out in a gun battery before moving up as a mechanic specialist.
His interest in science began as he was being shipped from Guadalcanal
to the Admiralty Islands in 1943 during the U.S. Pacific campaign
of World War II. He was one of the last men to grab a book supplied
by the American Red Cross. The one he picked up was about earthquakes,
written by Richard Dixon Oldham. "I found it to be so interesting,
I couldn't quit reading," Helderman recalls. He sat on the
ship's hatchback, engrossed with the words and drawings, he says.
The book explained seismographic paths that cut through the core
of the earth, creating the shock waves that cause earthquakes. His
interest in the earth's movements has yet to cease. Since picking
up that book in 1943, Helderman says he's read everything he has
laid his hands on relating to science, particularly seismology,
gravity and the moon.
He finished writing his book about a month before having the stroke.
"All the time I was learning," he says. "What education
I have is self-acquired."
Once he was discharged from the Army in July 1945, just two months
before the war ended, he applied to the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill to take courses in engineering. His marriage in November
1945 changed his plans. "I decided I couldn't do both,"
he says. "I would either go to school or go to work, so I went
He and his wife Marie have two children and two grandchildren, all
of whom live in the area.
Helderman's work experience falls into a wide range of categories.
He worked in construction and as a salesman. After exploring those
careers, he began inventing.
He holds 16 patents to various inventions used in manufacturing.
He spent several years working for a manufacturer in Pennsylvania
as a corporate inventor.
"It's a big gamble," Helderman says. "Some [inventions]
have paid off, some have not and some have been stolen. It happens
all the time."
He has always classified himself as a mechanic, he says, even as
a little kid. He worked as a mechanic in the Army before the attack
on Pearl Harbor. Following the day that will live in infamy, the
Army hired civilians to do those types of jobs and Helderman was
transferred to the Air Corps, where he worked on planes. When he
was discharged, Helderman had reached the rank of staff sergeant.
As a mechanic, he says, "I had no authority, but I had good
After moving to Graham in the 1970s, he settled into working for
a contractor. A brain tumor forced his retirement just as he reached
the age to collect social security.
He's had two brain surgeries and a heart bypass. "I was in
pretty good shape, but it took me about a year to recover,"
Helderman says. Then the stroke came in 2000, impairing him further.
After being unable to speak for nearly four months, he is continually
regaining much of his speech, although he still has difficulty saying
what his brain wants to convey. The man who lived through Pearl
Harbor has trouble remembering and explaining what he witnessed.
"It is not as vivid as you think it is," Helderman says,
his eyes squinting a little. "I was in a relatively safe place."
He was stationed about three miles away from the concentrated bombing
in Pearl Harbor. While other areas of the island were attacked as
well, Helderman's location was not.
"I could see and hear the explosions," he recalls. He
saw the explosions from the Arizona and a destroyer that was dry-docked,
but never the actual ships.
There were some fuses that fell from American guns and exploded
nearby, he says. "Some men from the gun crews didn't get to
the anti-aircraft guns," he explains. Because of this, some
of the fuses were not timed to go off in the air and instead exploded
upon impact with the earth. He says he was lucky not to have one
fall on him. At this, Helderman stops speaking of his experience.
"That's enough," he says. "I guess sometimes no one
will ever explain everything."
From Pearl Harbor, his mind returns to science. He recalls a story
from when he was 10 years old and living in Eden, N.C. He was with
his father and brother one night when they witnessed a meteor shower.
He remembers how bright the moonless sky became, and then the deep
cherry red remnants that fell to the earth. He says a diagram of
the meteors will be included in his book.
A taste of what Helderman included in his book are his theories
on gravity and where the moon came from.
He disregards the Big Bang theory that states the universe was created
by an astronomical collision. Instead, he agrees with some astronomers'
theories that the universe is created by dust. "We are stardust,"
Joni Mitchell sang at Woodstock in the 1960s. While Helderman was
in his 40s during that era, he agrees with her lyrics in his book.
"I read everything I could find about earth's movements,"
His fascination with the earth and the sky has lasted well over
50 years. His experiences in the Army, while often hard to describe,
make him a treasured hero of World War II.
Helderman's life continues in Graham, with his memories preserved
in the far reaches of his mind and his scientific findings preserved
on the pages of a "very small book."