2018-11-07 / Front Page

A true story...

WANDA HICKMAN WHITE

(Editor’s note: Wanda White shares with us after spending an afternoon with 94-year-old World War II Navy veteran John Glisson, whom she says kept her “spellbound and on the edge of my chair listening to his war memories.”)

When a young male reaches the age of nineteen, he is still considered a teenager. When that nineteen-year-old teenager hangs up his mule reins on the family farm in Girard, Georgia, gets a ride to Waynesboro to catch a bus to Atlanta and signs up to join the US Navy, he quickly becomes a man.

When that young farmer boy is told to do 12 push-ups and 12 chinups, the 125 pounds of lean muscles and self-discipline does it without a sweat, unlike most of the men around him. When he is told to jump in the largest swimming pool he has ever seen in his life to see if he could swim, he does that also, because Brier Creek taught him about swift currents and deep water.

When he is accepted, bussed to northern Illinois for basic training with five inches of snow on the ground and made to run five miles barefoot in his skivvies at reveille, he realizes his life is about to change – and change it did. Basic training was pretty tough and when it was over, he was awarded nine days leave. However, two days of travel each way did not leave much time to spend at home, especially knowing that he might never see his family, friends or home again. When he returned to the base, he was told not to unpack and sure enough, at 9 that evening, he was loaded on a train to another non-disclosed location. This type of travel and secrecy continued until he ended up in California.

A sailor remembers his ship as if she were his first love. The first time he saw the massive 600-foot long USS Wichita, he was stunned, especially when he saw the huge guns mounted on the deck. At that point, he thought, “My, oh my! What have I gotten myself into?” The ship had a beam of 61 feet and a draft of 23 feet. She displaced 10,000+ long tons at standard displacement and 13,000+ long tons at full combat load. The ship had a crew of 929 officers and enlisted men. She was equipped with four seaplanes, a pair of aircraft catapults and a crane for handling the aircraft which were mounted on the stern. The Wichita was powered by four Parsons steam turbines and eight Babcock & Wilcox oilfired water-tube boilers, which is where our sailor comes into the real story here as he ran those engines down in the bottom of that massive ship.

He stopped and laughed as he said, “You know what, Wanda? I couldn’t even remember where I had put that bottle of syrup tonight; don’t you think that it’s funny that I can remember so much about those days as if it was yesterday? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed over the years about things that happened while I was on that ship and when I wake up, it is as if I was still really there.”

At that point, I asked him what was the scariest event that ever happened while on the ship and immediately, he straightened his shoulders, cocked his head over a little as in deep thought and said, “Oh, that's an easy one!” One day our sailor was in the gear room, which is at the bottom of the ship, doing his job as he did every day when suddenly, the navigator from the bridge on the Selsyn phone called down to him in a frantic voice shouting, “TORPEDO PORT-BOW! TORPEDO PORT-BOW!” The next 60 seconds were the longest minute of his life. The entire 600-foot ship and all 929 men’s fates were in his and God’s hands with no time to think. There is one wheel (the trick wheel) which controls the hydroelectric motors and rams to turn the ship, and it takes eight complete turns of the steering wheel to move the rudder 70 degrees from its leftmost to its right-most position. The rudders themselves take about 36 seconds to complete the 70-degree turn.

He had to turn that wheel as hard and fast as he could and then turn the rudder the other way. The sailor manning the other rudder had to do the exact opposite (I think?) to make the sharp right turn without turning the ship over. The look on his face when he was explaining all of this mechanical stuff to me told me that whether I fully understood the mechanics of his quick actions or not, I knew that he took great pride (very humbly) in accomplishing that job. The torpedo missed them by a hair, due to his hair pin turn from quick thinking under extreme pressure. Think about it – if he had not accomplished that one turn that day, 929 men would more than likely have been killed. His entire time on that ship saw a lot of action and only one serious hit, which killed one artillery man and wounded one other. They never knew where the shell came from, but they were fortunate that was the only casualty. This was off the coast in Okinawa where there was a lot of engagement with artillery.

No one who has never served in the military can imagine what sacrifices are made when one serves their country. Have you ever ridden by a field of flowers, maybe sunflowers, and noticed their beauty? Thinking that you would like to stop to pick a few? After riding by them day after day and never stopping, you finally realize that you missed your opportunity; they have all died and dried up. Our WWII veterans are dying at a rate of an average of 362 every day, which raises a sad and depressing question: When will the U.S. lose the last of its WWII veterans and how many wonderful and heroic stories like this one of 94-year-old Navy veteran John Glisson will be forever lost with them?

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