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Dick Willhite among Trimble sailors in war zone on Dec. 7, 1941

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By NANCY WARD

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For The Trimble Banner

I enjoyed the recent article published in The Trimble Banner on Pearl Harbor so much. It brought back so many memories of my brother and the impact it had on my family at that time.

Several men from our county were named in the article and among them was my brother Richard “Dick” Willhite. Although I was small at the time it was a time that knowing my “hero,” my oldest brother, was in danger and the concerns we had for him even got through to a young girl.

Dick was somewhere in the Pacific close to Pearl Harbor and we had no way of knowing exactly where he was when the Japanese bombed the island there. It was a month before my mother knew if he was safe. I remember the tears and rejoicing when he finally got a call through to us. I still think of all the families that got calls relaying tragic news to their loved one. He was seventeen years old when he joined the navy. Too young to go without parental consent. My aunt went to the recruiting office and signed the papers for him to enlist. After basic training he was assigned to the USS Salt Lake City. His tour of duty would be in the South Pacific, at that time the most dangerous area in our world.

His letters home were chronicles of the war and he made it so real we could picture him there. Sadly those letters were destroyed after the death of my parents, which grieves me to this day. I felt we lost so much of him in those letters.

The Salt Lake City, sometimes called “Swayback Moro,” had the distinction of fighting in more battles than any ship in the U.S. Navy in places like Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Cape Severance, the Komandorche Islands, the Aleutian, Gilbert and Marshall Islands, which  became household names. The ship was part of a force that executed the Doolittle Raid on Japan. The ship was an escort to the USS Wasp when it was sunk and it barely escaped being sunk itself at Cape Esperance. Dick also survived a typhoon in the Pacific where he along with others made it to shore. Many others died. He was critically injured when his foot caught in the hook line that stopped the airplanes coming on board. He spent many months recuperating from that injury on the Island of Guam.

The Salt Lake City was deactivated in 1948. Years later it was used by the navy as a target ship and was eventually sunk off the coast of California.

My brother, Dick, after his discharge from the Navy was still in love with that way of life and joined the Coast Guard and served for many years until his retirement in the 1970’s. He retired with the rank of chief, the highest rank an enlisted man could attain. During those years he was stationed at Boston Harbor, Groton, Connecticut and Portland and South Portland, Maine. He always planned to return to Trimble County to live out his final years but in 1991 at the age of 67 he died of lung cancer in Portland, Maine.

He was 15 years older than I and was always “My Hero.” He had a jolly happy outlook on life. He and his wife Elinor had no children. I named my youngest son Richard in his honor.

If anyone is interested the link USS Salt Lake City has much more information. I even found in the ship logbook where my brother had been injured and even when he was on watch.