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Jim Dewitt’s journey: from orphanage to Pearl Harbor to Culver

November 11, 2012

Jim Dewitt holds a postcard sent to him recently, from 1940! He originally mailed the card to a young lady on a farm in Indiana he’d lived at for a time. Dewitt sent her the postcard from the USS Medusa while serving in the Navy in 1940. Recently, he became reacquainted with her, learning she lives today in Elkhart. She found the card and mailed it to Dewitt. It notes, among other things, that he’s doing fine, “having a big time,” and misses Indiana.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: In our previous article, we examined the popular Lake Shore Lanes Bowling Alley in Culver, from 1953 to 1978, and the Dewitt family who operated it. Here we delve into the journey of Pearl Harbor veteran and "Lanes" owner Jim Dewitt.*

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Jim Dewitt, born in Morocco, Ind., lost his mother and father to tuberculosis when he was age 4 (his mother) and 6 (his father), leaving him and his brother and sister to grow up mostly at an orphanage in Mexico, Indiana.

He relates a series of adventures after being placed on a farm 100 miles from the orphanage, from which he ran away, walking to Warsaw where a deputy sheriff picked him up and took him to jail, later spending the night at the sheriff's house and watering the courthouse flowers in exchange for his meals.

Dewitt returned to the farm, but later ran away again, heading from Chicago to the Ozark Mountains, about which he'd read adventurous things. On the way, he spent some time in St. Louis, eating the fruit tossed out (due to a bad spot or two) from boats on the Mississippi.

Dewitt found the Ozarks far less romantic than the fictional portrayal he'd read, and wound up hitchhiking to Dallas and then Illinois, later forced to spend two more years (starting at age 15) back in the Mexico orphanage. In spite of the bad taste left in his mouth from the farm he'd been sent to, there was a girl there he was interested in, so he spent one more year there until graduation from high school.

While there, he was able to find work in the home of a nearby farmer whose niece would eventually change Dewitt's life.

"These people (I was working for) had a three and a half year old daughter; it was the first time I ever felt like I had a home. She felt like a little sister. I was milking around Labor Day, and she kept saying she wanted to see Jimmy milking the cows. So Mary (the niece of the farmer) was visiting and brought her out. It was hard for me to talk to girls; I was kind of shy around them, but this seemed to be different. I wanted to see her again."

Mary's father, however, said Dewitt could visit the family in Florida any time, something he would remember later, when enlisted. He hitchhiked over 900 miles to Florida by way of New Orleans, though once there, he realized Mary was only 14, and Dewitt himself was 18.

"I was about to give up (on her). But I was waiting to be called into the Service, and she would be in school, so it would be no problem."
Jim Dewitt entered the US Navy in December, 1939, training at Newport, RI.

In May, 1940, he was on a ship in the Caribbean Islands, then doing maneuvers in Hawaii by July. He'd taken shorthand in high school so he was given office work, eventually making Yeoman second class, stationed on various ships until he found himself on the USS Antares for a three-month stint, chosen by the Squadron Commander to take dictation towards a book he was writing.

One of Dewitt's oddest experiences was running into a Marine who looked like his brother. Once he heard the voice, he was yelling John's name.

"Can you imagine meeting your brother on an island in the Pacific Ocean?" he marvels, even today.

Jim Dewitt's experiences witnessing the historic attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor on that "day of infamy" in December, 1941, were detailed last year in this newspaper. Like many there, he initially thought what appeared to be battle was only training maneuvers, and he wonders today how differently things might have gone if General Quarters had been called soon after a Japanese sub was sunk near his ship.

Japanese planes strafed their ship, says Dewitt, but it wasn't until everyone was ordered below deck that it "really got scary."

However, the Antares had not entered the Harbor proper and survived the attack. The reality of the devastation hit Dewitt when he went to visit his brother -- who had not been wounded, but had yellow jaundice -- in the hospital at Pearl Harbor.

"The terrible part was they were bringing in the casualties; so many were burned, and with the odor and the skin burning, it was terrible. Twenty four hundred died."

In all, Jim Dewitt served six years in the Navy.

In the early years of his Naval service, he says he didn't write to anyone for a long time. Mary began writing him, and by the end of 1944, the two were writing daily.

"I wanted to be with her," he recalls.

Released from the Navy on Dec. 23, Dewitt was unable to get official transportation so close to the holidays, so he hitchhiked a total of 7,500 to find his future bride.

"I asked her to marry me right away," he says. "I said, 'The Justice of Peace is fine with me!'"

The couple was married, however, four weeks later in a church alongside a small crowd of mostly Mary's family members.

Dewitt wasn't sure what he'd do, though he'd planned on farming. With $5,000 in his pocket ($3,700 from the Navy and most of the rest in poker winnings), he considered his options. One was re-enlisting, though he doubted his promise of staying stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base would be honored, so he passed on the option. He considered an offer to manage a mercantile company, but decided against spending his life in an office. Farming, he realized, had changed a great deal since his youth.

Dewitt happened to pick up a Ligonier newspaper while visiting Mary's aunt and uncle, advertising a grocery store for sale.

"We used to go to church near a little grocery store, years before, and I thought that'd be neat, so I bought the grocery store that night!"

He and Mary ran the grocery in Wawaka, Indiana, for seven years. Around that time, another couple expressed an interest in it, and Dewitt says the growth of larger supermarkets like Kroger and A&P showed him "the handwriting on the wall," so he decided to sell. The rest, to coin a phrase, is Culver history.

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