Widow, son had chance to say ‘goodbye’

WESLACO — One of the last things that Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez watched just hours before he was killed aboard the USS Fitzgerald was a video of his wife and son saying goodbye.

At a kitchen table on Monday inside her husband’s humble boyhood home, where photos of the happy family of three were stacked neatly and in chronological order, Dora Hernandez referred to the couple’s final moments together as a source of strength during a time of mourning.

“That’s why I’m dealing with it in such a manner that I’m not falling apart, because I had quite a few chances to say goodbye, and I was able do that,” Dora said as Noe’s sister, Mireya Hernandez Alvarez, offered something to drink.

Members of Noe’s family at the time were shuffling in and out of the home to greet visitors. Some brought refreshments. Dora, meanwhile, was focused on telling Noe’s story.

She recalls that it was around 4:30 a.m. on June 16 when Noe, who was about to re-embark on the remainder of an eight-month mission at sea, gave her a T-shirt and reassured that he’d be safe.

The reassurance was prompted by concern that Dora, who remembered hearing that some people had fallen overboard, suddenly felt compelled to share.

“Something spoke to me and poked at me, as if something told me to bless him,” she said of why she decided to say, “God bless you,’ in Spanish. “So I said, ‘Dios de bendiga. Just take care. I love you.’ And he said, ‘I love you too.’”

He had just returned to their Yokosuka, Japan home — where the Fitzgerald and the U.S. 7th Fleet are based — midway through the mission for a port call and was expected to be gone for another four months.

The T-shirt was a gift for Dora, who had been asking for any sweatshirt associated with the destroyer.

“That morning, he said, ‘I was going to leave this hanging for you,’ and he presented me a T-shirt from the ship that said, ‘Keep calm and Fitz on,’” Dora recalled fondly. “I was really excited. I said, ‘Yea! It smells like you. I’m going to sleep with it tonight.’

“Then he said he was going to go now, and he said bye to me and to the baby, and I told him, ‘Honey, please stay safe.’”

But this wouldn’t be the last time the two spoke. Sometime around 3 p.m. later that afternoon, Dora was able to send a video of her and Leon, their 2-year-old son who’s about to turn 3, delivering what they didn’t know would be a final farewell.

“The last message he sent me was him saying they’re heading out, because he would always let me know when they had already left,” Dora said of text messages the two shared.

“Before he lost signal, he always told me this when we had to part ways: ‘My heart stays with you all.’ I hardly do this because my signal gets lost, but we sent him a video saying, ‘Bye! We love you and miss you.’ The last thing he said was that he saw it … that was the last thing he saw from me.”

Noe died at the age of 26 after a Philippine-flagged container ship struck the starboard side of the Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan at about 2:30 a.m. June 17, less than 12 hours after he and Dora last communicated. The impact was such that Navy officials described a large puncture left below the waterline of the destroyer, as well as flooding inside the radio room, machinery and two berthing spaces, where Noe and the remains of six other sailors were found.

The incident has since prompted reactions from President Donald Trump and Governor Greg Abbott, who along with Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia has ordered that flags be flown at half-staff at state, county and municipal buildings in Noe’s honor.

According to Dora, the Navy investigation is expected to be a lengthy process, but she felt confident in authorities’ ability to learn more about what happened that day. Also leading investigations is the U.S. Coast Guard and Japanese authorities.

The young couple

After flipping through photos of the young couple, Dora intimately depicted how their charming romance as high school sweethearts in Weslaco matured upon Noe’s enlistment in the Navy and subsequent military lives in Italy and Japan.

The two began talking when they were 14 years old but had already shared much prior to their official meeting. Referring to Noe as her soul mate, Dora pointed to the couple sharing the same date of birth — nearly down to the minute — as well as other coincidences as evidence that the two may have been destined for each other.

They went to the same elementary school and visited people in the same hospital but never bumped into each other, she recalled. After two years of smiling at each other in the hallways of Weslaco High School, Noe finally spoke to her and found that they shared similar interests — faith, family and patriotism.

For Dora, she felt “giddy” every time Noe was around.

“We met in French class freshmen year, but we never talked much to each other,” Dora said of the 2009 WHS graduates, who both participated in the U.S. Army JROTC. “I remember thinking he was always very serious. Then he started talking to me more our junior year. He was very religious and devoted to God. His mom never had to push him to go to church, because he was the one who would say, ‘Mom, come on. Let’s go.’ I liked that about him especially as a teenager, because who’s that serious about God as a teenager? And he of course loved his country. I can attest to that.”

Such was Noe’s love of country that Dora said it was he who talked her out of joining the military too. According to Dora, he convinced her not to join if it was for the education of the experience rather than for patriotic reasons.

It’s Dora’s hope to share these memories with their son, who was close to his father.

“Their love for each other is undeniable,” Dora said as she showed photos of the father and son being inseparable. “He was so proud of his son. That was one of the things his shipmates told me, that he would always talk about his son and talk about me.”