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97-year-old WWII veteran remembers time serving his country in the South Pacific

97-year-old World War II Navy veteran Merle White doesn't speak often about his time in the Pacific, but he did on a cold November morning.

Posted: Nov 11, 2019 11:02 PM

(HOPKINS, Mo.)— It's a cold November morning and Merle White's daughter, Sandy (Alexander), is making sure her father has everything he needs.

"Dad, do you know where your stocking cap is?" She asked.

"No, but I won't need it today," White quipped quickly.

White still drives himself, but at 97 years old, he doesn't get around as well as he used to.

At 11 a.m. on this particular Tuesday, White sits in his brown leather chair in his living room, while Sandy prepares lunch for him.
White sits, thinking back to his days more than 75 years ago.

"I knew I was going to have to sometime, so I went ahead and enlisted," White said.

Now, White spends his days going about at his farmhouse on the hill in small-town Hopkins, Missouri, but on Oct. 2, 1942, White was commissioned to the United States Navy.

"I can go into detail, everything that happened," White said. "I just have to sit down and think about it."

He says he doesn't talk about it much, except for on this day and rare occasions.

"I very seldom mention it myself," White said.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, White knew he was going to be drafted eventually, so he went ahead and enlisted in the Navy.

But why the Navy?

"I like a good place to sleep," White said laughing.

He spent four weeks at basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago and was commissioned out of Seattle.

"A large group of us were together and went overseas together," White said. "Whenever we reached New Caledonia, we were assigned to a ship at that point and I was assigned to the U.S.S. McCawley."

White spent just 10 months aboard the McCawley.

On June 30, 1943, the McCawley was attacked during an amphibious invasion of Rendova Island in the South Pacific.
White was stationed at a 50-caliber machine on deck when the Japanese "twin-engine Betty" attacked.

"I was standing at a gunning station on the port side," White said. "That's where the airplane was coming from around the end of the island. The propellers looked like they were hitting the water. He was so low that the radar couldn't pick him up, so that's where I saw him launch the torpedo and I saw it coming through the water toward the ship."

Thirteen crew members were reportedly killed, but with what White described as a "house-sized" hole in the McCawley, the crew that survived, had to abandon ship.

"Everything was just blue, like turquoise, and it happened to everybody," White said.

It's moving toward 11:30 on this Tuesday morning and White continues to go stroll down memory lane, remembering different details from his service during World War II.

He interlocks his hands together, while closing his eyes to remember every little detail about escaping off the the McCawley.

When the orders to abandon ship were given, White went to get his bag, but he also went to grab the photo of his wife, Mary Ellen.

Today, the two would be married for 76 years, 2 months, and 12 days.

At this point in the morning conversation, White remembers he was 20 years old when he married Mary Ellen, while she was 18. He plays with the golden band on his left-ring finger and chokes thinking about the love of his life, who passed away in September 2018.

Once off the ship with his bag and the photo of Mary Ellen, he also recalls enemy planes trying to attack the rescue destroyer, but the attacks missed.

He returned to New Caledonia and was reassigned to the U.S.S President Jackson.

White didn't fancy himself as someone who wanted to see the action on the front line. He was a storekeeper 1st Class during his time on the U.S.S. Jackson.

In fact, White told his commanding officers that he could type, even though he couldn't.

Now sitting in his brown recliner, White bears a big smile when he was asked if he could actually type all those years ago.

He responds with a big laugh and a firm, "no".

But he learned how to.

"What is it?," White said, thinking back to 1943. "ASDFG, QWERT, YUIOP," said White while typing in the air.

White leans back in his chair and continues to remember his time in the Pacific especially when he found out where the U.S.S. Jackson was heading.

"The five ships got the orders to go to Iwo Jima," White said.

White experienced five different military engagements while stationed on the U.S.S. Jackson and earned campaign ribbons and stars.

He was known as a storekeeper, but during combat, he was assigned to a 40 mm twin bow gun.

"Out there with plenty of sight, I'll tell you," White chuckled.

The 97-year-old was a part of the liberation of the Solomon Island in 1943 and then Guam and the Philippines in 1944.

"They (enemy) were always shooting at you from land," White laughed.

While he wasn't on the island when the flag was put in the air, White saw the colors Red, White, and Blue flying over Iwo Jima.

"I saw the flag flying," White said joyfully.

He was stationed on the U.S.S. Jackson when victory in Europe was announced on May 8, 1945 and he knew once the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan that the war was coming to an end.

The war officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945 and White was honorably discharged on Sept. 27, 1945.

He returned home, with a stop at Norfolk, Virgina, and then back to northwest Missouri and his wife.

White started farming, again.

"Oh yeah, milking cows," White said.

And never had an issue returning to every day life, he was a farmer or as he said, "a tiller of the Earth."

As the noon horn sounds in the background of the room (it's the noon siren in Hopkins), the conversation dies down a bit and White settles into his chair a little more, while his daughter, Sandy, gets up to make sure lunch is ready, which he was supposed to eat at 11:30 a.m.

As things finish up around him, White continues to relax and take everything in. He's lived a full life, so far.

He doesn't think too much about his time serving in the Navy, but you can tell, he remembers every day vividly, something that his six grandchildren and 15 great-great grandchildren get a sense of pride from knowing their grandpa/great-grandpa served his country.

Sandy comes back into the room and asked if he's ready to eat. He obliges. But doesn't use his cane. He's walking on his own toward his kitchen table to enjoy his lunch. Something he does every day at 11:30 a.m., but not on this Tuesday, Nov. 5. It's about 12:15 because he was willing to sit and talk about serving his country, a duty he knew was going to need to do.

"I think if you had a job or on a gunner's mate or anything, you stayed there and did it," White said.

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Temperatures have dropped down below freezing for many this morning with mostly clear skies creating a few areas of frost. Today temperatures will struggle to warm up again into the upper 40s and lower 50s with a mix of sun and clouds. Tonight temperatures will drop into the upper 20s and lower 30s again providing another frosty morning on Thursday. Southerly winds will return on Thursday helping to slowly warm temperatures back up into the upper 50s. Most of the day Thursday will be dry but rain chances will start to increase after about 6 PM. Rain chances will continue for the first half of the day Friday before moving out of our area. The weekend looks comfortable and spring like with temperatures in the 60s and 70s under mostly sunny skies. The warm up continues into next week with highs in the 70s and 80s on Monday.
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