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Culver’s DeWitt returns to Pearl Harbor for 70th anniversary of bombing

December 22, 2011

Culver’s Jim DeWitt, in Honolulu earlier this month, looks on as young students chat with fellow Pearl Harbor survivors.

Culver’s Jim DeWitt hadn’t seen Pearl Harbor in 70 years, but over the week of Dec. 7, he and a number of others present on that fateful day, were given a hero’s welcome at the area many -- like DeWitt -- last saw when the wounds of the victims of Japanese bombers were still fresh, families of the dead still in shock.

DeWitt, who celebrated his 90th birthday this past summer, was one of a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors flown to the site by the Greatest Generation Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving war veterans, for six days of memorials, tours, and other tributes centered around the 70th anniversary of the 1941 bombing which shocked the nation and brought the United States into World War II.

DeWitt says he left Saturday the 3rd and flew to Chicago to catch a plane to Honolulu, Hawaii. He was one of just five Pearl Harbor vets from Indiana, and 24 from around the U.S. closely escorted through the events.

The veterans were lodged in the Honolulu Hilton, though DeWitt says there were some challenges for many older vets in the “young man’s place” in which they stayed.

However, vets were kept extremely busy and treated as royalty, he notes.

“Each day they something planned. It was rather extensive; it was quite a deal for us, but most came out okay.”

Navy personnel were assigned to assist and answer questions for each veteran daily, DeWitt says.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he adds. “They treated us like royalty, taking pictures with you, wanting to thank you.”

The first day, he recalls, included a boat ride through the harbor, followed from day to day with trips to Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks, private tours of the USS Arizona memorial and USS Missouri, the Marine Corps base and Iwo Jima memorial, and a host of other sites.

DeWitt and the others rose at 4:30 a.m. to Dec. 7 and enjoyed a busy breakfast to the tune of 1940s music. A ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the bombing began at 7:55 and ran almost until noon, populated by a number of dignitaries. Veterans were kept busy the rest of that day and only returned to their hotels at 9 p.m. -- a “long day,” says DeWitt, though a satisfying one.

The evening of the 8th, he says, included an impromptu parade through downtown Honolulu.

“I have never seen such a parade,” he says. “Everybody said that, too. People were eight and 10 deep on both sides in some places. The 24 of us were made marshals to the parade and they sent us in Corvettes. The driver of one I was in said he’d done parades for years but had never seen anything like this. He kept saying that, over and over. People with cameras were snapping pictures and coming over to the car and thanking us. It was unbelievable.”

The parade was followed by the governor’s cookout in the park for the men.

The final day included a memorial service at Punchbowl National Cemetery, not only to Pearl Harbor vets who lost their lives 70 years earlier, but all who died in the war. Some national headlines were made by the fact that the television show, “Hawaii 5-0” was filming at the site, where the crew appeared to fail to follow protocol at the cemetery, besides striking some veterans as disrespectful in what some perceived as their disregard for the proceedings.
However, DeWitt says, the trip was a joy to those veterans who attended.

“It was really something. It seemed like too much for what we done -- we were just there.”

DeWitt himself served on the USS Antares during that part of 1941, though he was only on temporary duty on the ship. The Commander of the squadron wanted to write a book, and DeWitt was assigned to take shorthand during the planned 40-day trip at sea. DeWitt and those on the ship initially doubted the attack was real, as the radio continued to play music, until the seriousness of the situation struck them.

“This is the first time back (to Honolulu) for me,” he says. “Some had been back a number of times. Believe me, there’s nothing I could remember except where the USS Utah was. It was sitting out in a place that was not really very active, and it’s still that way....it’s the only thing that still looks familiar.”

DeWitt remembers the largest building in the city in 1941 was three stories, replaced today by multiple high-rises, interstates and “terrific” traffic. The beautiful weather was a treat to the men, he says, who saw double and single rainbows.

DeWitt says he found out about the 70th anniversary flight in October at a Plymouth-based meeting of Indiana Pearl Harbor survivors, 10 of whom he says were lost from the Hoosier state’s populace last year alone. He estimates perhaps 20 to 25 Indiana Pearl Harbor survivors remain. Twenty years ago when Congress gave DeWitt and other Pearl Harbor vets commemorative medals for the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Indiana boasted 220.

The trip in some ways resembles another flight DeWitt took close to a year prior to this one: an “Honor Flight,” also sponsored by a non-profit aimed at serving veterans, to Washington D.C. There, DeWitt and other World War II veterans were deeply moved at the outpouring of thanks and appreciation for their service, both from present-day servicemen and the public.

“The Honor Flight and this were comparable in many ways,” he explains. “We got all the attention and (in Hawaii) they had fireworks for us the last night. (On both trips), everywhere you went people would stop and want to have their pictures taken with you. It was a little different, but comparable. Both were far more than I ever expected. It just made you feel really special. And the people from the Greatest Generation Foundation were really good.”
DeWitt was also honored a little closer to home this year as parade marshal for Culver’s Lake Fest parade. In celebration of his 90th birthday later in the summer, well-wishers from near and far crowded a reception for DeWitt, recalling among other things the years his family operated Culver’s bowling alley (up to 1978) on Lake Shore Drive -- and the famously beloved tenderloins they served there.
Culver at Pearl Harbor

In the Dec 10 Culver Citizen, it was noted that in announcing the United States’ declaration of war on Japan after Pearl Harbor, several local men were at Pearl Harbor during the attack. LaMarr White was on the USS Litchfield; George C. Sales was in the Marines there; Robert P. Schweidler was with the USS Dobbin; Glen Quivey, Doran Finney, William Ingram, John William Bays were also in the Pearl Harbor area. The last three Pearl Harbor survivors in Culver were actually “transplants” who moved here after their years of military service: the late Eugene Riester, the late Jim Rinesmith, and our own Jim DeWitt.

Following up on the attack, a Defense Committee for Culver was announced by Oliver C. Schilling, chairman, according to the Dec. 24 Citizen. Members included Col. W. E. Gregory, superintendent of Culver Military Academy; Culver town board president Ernest W. Carter; town marshall Verl McFeely; water works superintendent George Stabenow; fire chief Carey Cummins; American Legion post commander M.R. Robinson; Spanish-American War vet J.W. Riggins; Col. Robert Rossow, CMA; Mrs. L.R. Kellam and Deane E. Walker, members of the county defense committee; and Robert Rust, director of Culver Military Academy’s news service.

Word of the first casualty amongst Culver boys reached town the same week. Mr. and Mrs. Carl Finney received word that their son, Patrick L. Finney, was killed Dec. 7 in the Japanese raid on Hickman Field, Hawaii. He was a 1933 graduate of Culver High School and enlisted in 1940. He was a member of the 26th Bombardment Squadron, and his name part of the name of Culver’s VFW Post 6919 Finney-Shilling.

In the wake of the attack, as was the case in communities across America, a wave of young men began to join the Armed Services, and people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds launched endeavors here to contribute to the war effort, a cause so galvanized by the Pearl Harbor attacks. It was also announced in late January, 1942, that all German, Italian, and Japanese nationals would be required to register at the county seat in Plymouth between Feb. 9 and 28.

The first air raid drills began in Culver in January, 1942, as did the first wave of draft registrations (initially in the bank building), and soon after, food and vital war materials rationings, “victory” dances and scrap materials drives, and more.

One year after the monumental bombing, at the request of then Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker, church bells throughout Indiana -- including in Culver -- tolled and every Hoosier urged to “Remember Pearl Harbor” by facing west for one minute at 11:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the Japanese bombing of …Pearl Harbor.”

“During the one-minute tribute to the Pearl Harbor dead,” reported the Citizen, “Gov. Schricker has suggested that each Hoosier ask of himself: ‘Have I done all I can during the first year of the war? Am I doing my full share to assure victory?’”

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