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Pearl Harbor survivor remembers sad day
Jack White now lives in Ludowici
Pearl Harbor vet Jack White
Jack White sits in his Ludowici home earlier this week. - photo by Photo by Denise Etheridge
“It was unbelievable. We didn’t think it was possible to be attacked,” said Pearl Harbor survivor Jack White.
White, 89, lives a quiet life in nearby Ludowici. Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bringing our nation into World War II, began tranquilly enough, according to White. No one expected the noise, chaos and carnage that followed.
The Ludowici resident enlisted in the Navy in 1940.
 “I joined the Navy to stay out of the Army,” White said. “We’d heard enough stories about World War I and what they (soldiers) had experienced in that war. We didn’t know the Navy would be as heavily involved in a war.”
White was just 19 and worked in a saw mill in California. He encouraged his friend Paul to enlist with him.
“Paul was killed at Pearl,” White said with a choked voice.
The small town California boy had wanted to travel and “see the world.”
“As soon as I finished boot camp in San Diego, I was assigned to a destroyer at Pearl Harbor,” he continued. White served aboard the U.S.S. Conyngham DD 371.
“We figured the numbers of our ship were lucky — three odd numbers that when added up made an odd number,” he said. White’s ship was lucky that day; they didn’t lose any men at Pearl Harbor. Their losses came later in the war.
White, then 20, was waiting to go ashore for a day of liberty. He had tickets to a football game, he recalled. His ship, along with most of the fleet, had been out on maneuvers for the previous two weeks and had just come back into the harbor.
The young sailor was trained as a radioman, but his recent certification on a 50 caliber machine gun two weeks prior was what kept him focused that grim day.
“It was 7:55 a.m. when the first wave came,” White said. “I had on a brand new uniform I’d never worn. By the time we got through that day the uniform was nothing but trash.”
The elderly veteran, with a clear voice and accurate memory, described how the Japanese planes flew low over the ships in the harbor. He and his fellow sailors aboard the U.S.S. Conyngham were strafed by the low-flying enemy planes.
“You could see them (the pilots) sitting there grinning at you,” White said. The enemy planes flew 20-30 feet above the water, he said.
White said it took “a while” to return gunfire.
“All the ammunition was locked up,” he said. “We had to break the locks to get to it.”
White said he and his comrades didn’t have time to be scared, although they were.
“We could see the whole harbor from where we were located,” he said. White said the battle took only one hour and 50 minutes, explaining that the Japanese attacked in two separate waves.
A total of 2,403 Americans were killed that day and 1,177 sailors were still on the U.S.S. Arizona when it sank.
“They’re (U.S.S. Arizona’s crew) still there to this day,” he said. The veteran said the water in Pearl Harbor was only about 60 feet deep at its deepest point. Other ships that sank due to the attack included the U.S.S. Utah, which had been taken out of commission but was used for dive bombing practice using sacks of flour, the U.S.S. Shaw, and the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which “rolled over,” according to White.
White returned to Pearl Harbor for reunions with other survivors about every 10 years; in 1971, 1981, 1991 and in 2001. The reunions are actually held every five years, he said.
“In 2006 there weren’t enough (Pearl Harbor Survivor Association) members for a reunion,” White said. “In 1996, 3,000 were there. In 2001, 601 were there. And in 2006, the 55th anniversary of the war, only 26 remained.”
White spent seven years in the Navy. He was recognized for his part in “six major battles and some minor skirmishes that didn’t amount to much.”
His ship “took a hit” at Guadalcanal, where they lost 17 men.
“We buried them at sea,” White said. The Navy veteran also took part in battles at Midway, the Coral Sea, New Guinea, Taipan and the Marianas.
White wanted to go to Korea, he said, but was given a medical discharge in 1947 for contracting “jungle fungus” in his ears when serving in New Guinea.
“I made the mistake of swimming in a dirty river in New Guinea,” he said. “We’d do almost anything for recreation.” The river had “everything” in it, he said, including leeches and dead Japanese fighters.
Despite the horrors of war, White said he wouldn’t trade his time in the military for anything.
“If every young person spent two years in the service, this world would be better off,” he said. “It makes you or breaks you.”
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