My family’s last World War II veteran passed away just a few hours after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. Although not as famous, my Uncle John’s reputation was just as formidable as hers.
Like the queen, my Uncle John was a teenager when he began his WWII service. During the summer, before he started his senior year in high school, John Henry Whitson enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve in a special program for 17-year-old recruits. Local newspaper stories reported he left home for training at the Great Lakes Naval Station on Nov. 8, 1944. John’s mandatory selective service registration form, preserved at the National Archives, wasn’t filed until after he was discharged from active duty in 1946.
Two older brothers, including my father and my Uncle Lyle, left home as Navy recruits in 1939 and 1941. They were already seasoned sailors on ships with port assignments on the East Coast, close enough to see each other from time to time.
After his training was over, my Uncle John was sent to the Pacific Ocean where he was assigned to the crew for the USS Louisville. Ship rosters show he arrived on board on Feb. 12, 1945. Later in the year, while the Louisville was docked in Hawaii, the young sailor caught a glimpse of my father’s ship, the USS Herndon, which had been transferred to the Pacific Theater after its decisive role in the 1944 invasions of Normandy and Southern France. To John’s delight, the USS Herndon was within sight of the USS Louisville as both ships put back out to sea. The fleet was on a mission to deliver a secret weapon that would be used to bring an early end to the war.
John told me at my father’s graveside committal service in 2019 that it gave him a great deal of comfort on his journey across the Pacific to think his older brother was watching over him. Later, he was surprised to learn his brother Bob actually left the Herndon earlier in the year to attend an advanced torpedo school in San Diego.
Even though the older seaman was supposed to return to the Herndon and share information on what he learned with others in the Pacific Fleet, my father was retained in California and reassigned as an instructor at the San Diego Naval Training Station. John was really on his own until the Louisville anchored in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, where his brother Lyle’s ship, the USS Denebola, was also part of the fleet observing the official surrender of Japan being signed aboard the USS Missouri.
I have always admired my father’s military service record. He was aboard a “tin-can” that was awarded three battle stars for its participation in the invasions of Sicily, Normandy and Southern France. The USS Herndon was affectionately called the “Lucky Herndon” in the media because of its record of avoiding serious damage when other ships in its squad were not so fortunate. While reading the historic records of the USS Louisville, which received 13 battles stars during WWII, I realized why my Uncle John usually avoided talking about the “good old days” in the Navy with his brothers at our family reunions. He was aboard the Louisville when it was hit by a Japanese kamikaze on June 5, 1945. John recalls he was supposed to standing fire watch when the attack occurred, but was below deck on another errand when the plane hit. It was a close call with death that he never forgot.
After he was discharged from the Navy, John returned to his home in western Illinois. He married, adopted two children and eventually wound up in Branson, Mo., where he built a skating rink on a vacant lot in the middle of town along Highway 76. Our family enjoyed several reunions in Branson, including one that resulted in front row seats for dinner and a show at the skating rink’s neighbor, the Dolly Parton Stampede. John’s daughter continues to operate the skating rink, still sitting in the middle of town surrounded by hotels and live show venues.
If my uncle encountered the queen on his heavenly ascent, I have no doubt they talked about their allied association as WWII veterans. It was the challenge of their young lives and set the stage for their ability to explore new challenges in the decades ahead of them.