Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12. Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since.
World War II veteran A.J. Whitmore, 88, who lives south of Atlanta, says that war changed this whole world, impacting the United States in a way that no other veteran has mentioned in this feature series.
But let’s start with this octogenarian’s recollections of rural life before the war: “As kids, we picked cotton for 20 cents a hundred. Ginned cotton was 6 cents a pound, $30 for a 500-pound bale. Eggs were 20 cents a dozen. A milk cow cost $10. Momma bought them and I milked. Kerosene was 5 cents a gallon and even though we never bought gasoline, it couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 cents. Labor was $1 a day. That was from after dew until after dark, a good 12 hours. We used to bale hay.”
During the War, the government under President Franklin Roosevelt froze prices, he says. Top wages were $1.50 per hour. On leave, I’d have only 5 gallons of gasoline for a month. Coffee, sugar, everything was rationed. You had to get permission from the OPA (Office of Price Administration) to buy a tire.”
“Let me tell you a story,” Whitmore begins. “When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, this country was still divided. It was divided by the Civil War, the Mason-Dixon Line. Anyone south of the line was called a Rebel, anyone north, damn Yankee. All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941. The entire country came together like glue on paper.
“I remember when I heard the news. I was in the Joy Theater. The Sunday show was 25 cents. The only air conditioning there was a big fan. We were still integrated. Blacks sat in the balcony, whites were downstairs. That afternoon when we heard the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor, I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was.”
He was born Jan. 12, 1925, the eldest of eight children of Wiley and Mildred Whitmore who, at that time, lived in Simmsboro. Wiley was a dragline operator who’d started work at age 19, building levees on the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya rivers. ”He started before the Flood of 1927 and our family moved all over that region. We went to Snow Lake, Arkansas, when I was 6 where they built two ring levees around two huge plantations so they wouldn’t be flooded by the White River, and to Florida, working on the Intracoastal Canal.”
Whitmore admits he wasn’t much of a student. Because of all their moving around, he was a grade behind. “I could spell anything. I liked English and History but I hated Algebra. I saw WWII as my way out so when I made 17, I joined the Navy. My daddy took me and a friend down to join. I’d always wanted to be in the Navy. I figured it would be a good time. When I got out Oct. 28, 1945, I lacked 3 months of having served 4 years.”
In 2000, Whitmore went down to Baton Rouge where WWII veterans were given honorary high school diplomas in appreciation for their service.
Following base training in San Diego, the local veteran went to Hospital Corps School for several months. Then he went to U.S. Naval Training Station to administer shots and X-rays to new recruits. His next move was Camp Pendleton which was nothing more than a tent city at the time. He was assigned to USMB 241, Marine Air Group 13.
He was never involved in the invasion of any of the Pacific islands as American forces moved slowly towards Japan but he went through many of them, Bougainville, Tawawa, Munday, Guadalcanal, Rendova and Gilbert. He documents those travels with an impressive collection of Navy photos. Still young, Whitmore learned how to drive in a crash ambulance on a Pacific runway.
“In my duties, I had to chlorinate the water supply after the Seabees built a dam for rainwater. I was a Navy pharmacist mate, attached to the Marines…the Navy supplied the medical care. I was in Samoa on the 4th of July, 1943. We got a pig from the natives. We barbecued that pig and it was the best food we had all war. We’d been eating Spam and powdered eggs. But I still like Spam. It kept me from starving many a time. I was 18 and stupid.” (In another incident of poor decisions among the fighting men looking for some escape from the pressures of warfare, he told of losing 7 men, with another going blind after drinking wood alcohol. “We lost more men due to stupidity and accidents.”)
Another Samoa memory involved a celebrity. “We were out swimming one day and saw a passenger plane, a C-51, coming down. I ran to get my clothes on. My job was to go aboard any landing plane and spray for mosquitoes before anybody got off. This helped control the spread of malarial mosquitoes from island to island.
“As I approached the plane, I saw a jeep coming with a Lt. General flag on it. This major came over to keep me away from the plane. ‘I’ve got to spray,’ I told him. ‘No you ain’t,’ this major said and pulled me back. Well, when the door opens, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt. ‘Oh, my God,’ I think.
“Later I tell my chief that they wouldn’t let me spray the plane. ‘That’s OK,’ he answered. ‘The people on that plane are so important that a mosquito wouldn’t dare bite them.’ Mrs. Roosevelt was on tour to assure the troops that the coal mine strike was just a misunderstanding and soon things would be back to normal.”
He also remembers “the Japs had one plane and pilot called ‘Washing Machine Charlie.’ We couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see us but he kept us awake all night.”
In his timeline, one year after enlistment, Whitmore was sent overseas (Jan. 15, 1943) and a year later, as his ship approached the Gilbert Islands, he came down with elephantitis, a parasitic disease common among soldiers in the humid Pacific jungles. He was shipped to Norman, OK, where he was treated in a huge naval hospital, with halls so long, he recalls, that they rode bicycles down them.
As he healed, his Hospital Corps training was put to good use. “This had pilot training and a Marine base. It was like a city and on Saturday and Sunday, there were as many Marines there as on the streets in San Diego. I sewed up many Saturday night split heads.”
As the U.S. prepared for the final assault on mainland Japan, a vast number of men was pulled back into action. Whitmore was among them. He was shipped down to Mobile, boarded the USS Sitka and steamed to Hawaii. “We were waiting on an LST and I knew we were going in the Invasion. During a film showing, they announced that we’d dropped an A-bomb on Hiroshima, killing thousands. We started clapping and cheering, even though we didn’t know what an A-bomb was. Harry Truman had saved my life. I think he was our greatest president. He hurried development of the A-bomb and saved thousands of American lives. We were going to invade Japan in November 1945. They estimated we’d lose 1,000 of our A-1 ships…that’s our first-line ships, not the little LSTs.
“We were in Pearl Harbor when we heard the Japs had surrendered. They put tracer bullets in their guns and lit up the sky over the harbor, like fireworks. But then some Washington delegates didn’t want to release us all at one time. They figured we were all killers and a danger to the country. So they came up with a point system, like years of service, wife, children and such.
“Well, I lacked a half point from being discharged. I’d gotten married while I was on leave in 1944. Me and a boatswain’s mate were in the barracks and here comes someone to say they want me in the office. The ship headed for Japan and the Occupation has come in and they wanted me. ‘Wait, you want a pharmacist mate second class? I know two that just got here from San Diego.’ I’d worked with them there. While I was in the Pacific, they’d been in San Diego since the start of the war. I went and got them and told the personnel officer, ‘These are the two guys I told you about.’ And I walked out. Not me. I was going home. I had a wife and baby at the house. My son, Ronnie, was 3 months old and I hadn’t seen him.”
Two weeks later, he got the call he’d waited for and boarded a carrier with 5,000 returning servicemen (plus a crew of 5,000). On the supply deck, cots were lined up head-to-head. His return took him to Langley AFB, then Philadelphia and finally a train to New Orleans. “When we got there, we went to the mess hall and they ask what we want. I had a T-bone steak that was out of this world. The next day they ask if I want to re-enlist. ‘No thank you,’ I say so I’m discharged the next day.”
In New Orleans, Whitmore got a job as a deck hand on a tugboat. Two years later, he got his license from the Coast Guard and started running survey boats. Then in 1955, he went to work in the Gulf of Mexico as a captain for Halliburton, cementing offshore wells and worked there 20 years. For the following 15 years, he worked construction in Baton Rouge, finally retiring in 1990.
When Whitmore was 16 in Simmsport, Lucille Brady (who would later be graduated from Atlanta High School) came to help her aunt who was expecting a baby. “That’s how I met her,” he says and the two wrote back and forth during the war. “I was in Rhode Island for a 10-day leave. I was 18 and we decided to get married. That was Jan. 28, 1944. While I was still working for Halliburton in 1965, I built our home here on the Brady homestead. We’d been married 62 years when she died in 2006. We had 3 sons and a daughter, 9 grandkids and 9 great grandkids.”