Thousands of Miles of Life and Love
The Penniless Hitchhiker
At only four years old, Jim “Jimmy” DeWitt was left at an orphanage in Mexico, IN after his parents died of Tuberculosis. Though his older siblings also resided there, two brothers and a sister, he never got to see them. When he became older, he had hoped that his placement at a farmer’s home, 70 miles away in Kimmel, IN, might finally bring him family. The 80-acre farm was always abundant with work, and Jimmy worked hard. However, he soon realized that he was wanted for his manual labor, not a true son. Regardless of how hard he worked, he never felt he was a genuine part of the family. So, at 15 years old he decided to run away, with plans to head for California.
With not a penny in his pocket, Jimmy hitchhiked his way to Chicago, where his aunt owned a beauty parlor. Thinking he could just show up on Clark Street and find his way to his aunt’s business, he asked a police officer if he could help him find it. “Well, what’s the number?” the police officer asked Jimmy. Jimmy didn’t have any idea. “Kid,” the police officer continued. “Do you know that Clark Street is 30 miles long?” His search for family in Chicago proved fruitless, so he decided to continue his journey west.
While hitchhiking Highway 66, he made it to Dallas, TX. It was summer and carnivals were going on all the time. He was able to find food and sustain his nomadic life, at least for a time. It was approaching late August, and school was going to start. Although he was good at school, he didn’t like it. But something propelled him to turn back so he could start his sophomore year. He made it to Grant Park, in Chicago, where another aunt and uncle lived. He asked them if he could live there with them, he would do anything. They said yes, but wanted to chat with the orphan home first, as they wanted to follow any proper procedures. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well. Jimmy was quickly returned to the orphan home in Mexico, IN. After completing his sophomore and junior years, he was asked to return to the Kimmel farmer, and for reasons not clear to himself, he agreed. He completed his senior year at Cromwell High School near Kimmel.
A New Love
After he graduated, Jimmy went to live and work on a nearby farm, this time it was a young couple with a three-year-old daughter. The little girl was like a sister to him; he’d play with her while her parents were busy running their farm. One fall evening Jimmy was milking in the barn. The young couple were hosting some relatives, and they had three girls and two boys. The young couple’s little girl started crying because she wanted to see Jimmy. The guests’ older daughter was asked to take her out to the barn to see him. That’s when Jimmy met Mary. They got to talking and he found out that she was from Panama City, FL. They talked for about a half hour and Jimmy realized immediately that there was something he liked about her. He hoped that after the milking and his other chores were completed, he would be able to catch up with her. When he was done with his work, they were gone.
The company was at the farm again the next day, except for Mary. During his lunch break, he struck up a conversation with her parents. Finding out that he wanted to visit Florida sometime, they extended a welcome to him, which he remembered a few months later. He let them know that he enlisted in the Navy and he was on a wait list, so he didn’t think he’d be able to visit them. While he was waiting for the Navy’s call, he continued working at the farm. Thanksgiving passed and all the field work was done for the year. Jimmy asked his employer for a week off to go to Florida. With $8.00 in his pocket this time, he hitchhiked a thousand miles to Panama City. For $.50 he stayed in a rooming house and then met Mary’s family the next day. She showed him her hometown. Jimmy realized that the day he met her, he hadn’t gotten a good look at her. When he saw her in sunny Florida, as opposed to a dark barn on a fall Indiana evening, he realized she was much younger than he remembered. She was only 14 years old, and he was 18. Her age coupled with his six-year contract with the Navy caused him pause in his pursuit of her. He thought nothing could come of it. But he did send her a card from Hawaii when he got there and in 1942, he sent her a Christmas card. Then, one day, he received a letter from her, much to his delight. He said he would write to her every day and asked her to do the same, beginning their courtship. Something came of it after all. But many more miles would be traveled before their story began.
The Navy Years
Though Jimmy didn’t have any contact with his siblings while growing up in the orphan home, he did have some contact once he joined the Navy. His older brother joined the Navy, and Jimmy decided to follow in his footsteps. They were both on the U.S.S. Medusa. While this could have been a time to grow closer, they actually had quite different interests. His brother wanted to frequent the bars; Jimmy wasn’t interested in that. But their time in the Navy proved to be one of the most epic moments in history.
Early in his naval career, Jimmy found that some of his decisions in high school had proven quite fruitful. Even though he was the only boy in the class, Jimmy had decided to take typing and shorthand in high school, simply because he was interested in it. Because of these skills, he was able to quickly expedite his promotions, bypassing some of the traditional processes. He went to the captain’s office one morning, along with seven other seamen, to strike for Yeoman (this means that they were vying for a promotion in rank). They handed each of them a worksheet and asked them to type it and bring it back. “I could type 75 words per minute,” Jimmy said. When his superior saw him return quickly he said, “Back already? Boy, this looks good. I don’t suppose you know shorthand?” This caught the attention of his superiors; however, he was told he had to be on the ship’s deck force for a year and then six months of KP (kitchen patrol) before he could be promoted to Yeoman. Jimmy thought that was the end of it. The captain and the executive office had a discussion. The captain ended up explaining his position, “If you have somebody in the Navy that can do the job and nobody else wants the job or can do it, I think we are obligated to do it. I want him transferred immediately.”
While he found ways of moving quickly up ranks, he also had to learn new ways of living…life on a ship. “You learn to sleep in that hammock in a short time,” Jimmy remembered. “We hit rough water and I went to turn in my hammock. I grabbed for something, and it ended up about 12 of us hit the deck. That was an experience. You heard a lot of cussing.” The following morning, they were all on the bow scraping the waterways all around the ship. “Everybody was just like drunk,” he said. “All the guys on there were not used to a ship. They got seasick. It must have looked awful. I was so sick. What was I doing in the Navy?”
Jimmy was transferred to the U.S.S. Antares, a supply ship. The Antares was loading up to take a corps of engineers to Camp Milan, a British-owned island about halfway to Australia. They went to Kanton Island. “The Japanese were talking in Washington and apparently it hadn’t gone very well,” Jimmy recalled. “The Antares didn’t have any armament on it, so they sent the destroyer, U.S.S. Selfridge to escort us. They directed us to go to Palmyra Island, about 1,100 miles south of Honolulu, to tow a yard craft back to Pearl Harbor.”
The U.S.S. Selfridge had sonar equipment. They picked up something that was following them. When asked who they were, they didn’t answer. It was assumed they were Japanese. The destroyer would go around the supply ship once in a while at high-speed trying to locate where they were. They lost contact with that submarine, but the destroyer U.S.S. Porter picked it up later. “Roosevelt had said he didn’t want anybody doing anything,” he continued. “He wanted the Japanese to make the first move.”
“We reached the entrance to Pearl Harbor at 5:30 that morning,” Jimmy remembered. “The Japanese came in at 7:48 a.m. It was our ship that spotted the submarine.” What was quite surprising is the sense of calm and peace prior to the attack. Jimmy recalled that beautiful Hawaiian music was being played over the intercom that morning. “It was a Sunday morning. We thought everything is peaceful.” Then the music stopped suddenly, and they called out, “This is an air raid! Take cover!” They kept repeating that. Everything escalated from that point.
“They wouldn’t let us in the harbor,” Jimmy continued. “Because they knew there was more trouble ahead.” Shortly later, around 9:00 a.m., another attack ensued. This time, American guns were manned, and Jimmy remembered that shells and debris were dropping all over them. He, along with seven other crew members, were on the bow of the ship watching the dogfight over their heads; they were amazed how the Americans got eight planes in the air for the second attack. Then, as they were watching the dogfight, a Japanese plane opened fire on their ship. They hit the deck. “They ordered us to get down below, and that is the first time I got scared,” he continued. “I didn’t want to be down there if a bomb hit us. The only way you got out of there is on a ladder.” Fortunately, the Antares wasn’t bombed, but they were hit with bullets, sustaining damage to the radio shack and the bridge.
They never did go in the harbor, but instead went to Honolulu. Destroyers were sent to protect the harbor from Japanese submarines. “The next morning, at eight o’clock, I got a telegram from the Red Cross saying my brother was in the hospital in Pearl Harbor,” Jimmy recalled. “That was the worst day for me. The place smelled awful with burning.” Most of the sailors wore T-Shirts and shorts, no protection against the bombs. The Japanese were dropping incendiary bombs, while they weren’t big, they started a multitude of fires. Many of the casualties were caused by these fires. “My brother wasn’t injured,” Jimmy continued. “He had asthma and got a case of yellow jaundice, and they flew him back. He got out of the Navy in April. He was discharged for medical reasons. He never went through the war.”
From Navy to Nuptials
During his years in the Navy, he always had his mind on his future and the girl he met while milking cows. Jimmy was eventually sent to Treasure Island for just less than two years. Then he was sent to Guam to start a receiving station. Hagatna, Guam’s capital, was not far from the Navy’s seaport. “It was destroyed by bombing,” he said. This was the last place he was stationed prior to his journey back to Los Angeles. Jimmy wanted to save his earnings; therefore, he would only draw the money he absolutely needed. He never took all his pay. He would just take $5 here and $10 there, but most of it he just let accumulate. It paid off for him. “I got a check for $3,782,” he boasted. “That was a lot of money then.” He headed back to the United States in an aircraft carrier. “I told the guys in Guam that I was going 7,500 miles to ask a girl to marry me.” And that is exactly what he did.
Once in Los Angeles, he couldn’t get out of the area because of thousands of soldiers coming home. He got his pay on December 21, just four days before Christmas. He didn’t want to wait long to organize transportation to Panama City, Florida… so he hitchhiked. “Everybody would pick me up,” he recalled. “All I had was my seabag and my uniform.” The likelihood of him arriving in Florida by Christmas was quite slim, so he ended up staying in San Antonio with the family of his best friend. After Christmas with that family, he continued his journey and he continued hitchhiking.
He arrived in Panama City around New Year’s. “I didn’t want them to know I hitchhiked, so I bought a bus ticket,” he said. They came to pick him up from the bus station. He got out and then shook Mary’s hand. That night, when they got to their home, he asked her to marry him. “That was six years and four months from the first time I met her,” he said. She was 20 years old, and he was 24.
“She gave me heaven on earth,” Jimmy said, a glisten in his eyes. “I had everything a man could hope for. I hit the jackpot.” Together they built a lovely life. They worked together for 32 years. They had a grocery store in Wawaka, Indiana and later they bought a bowling alley in Culver, Indiana. The two of them raised two boys and two girls. His beloved Mary passed away in October 2005, just a few months short of their 60th wedding anniversary. Their family has grown to include 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
There aren’t many Pearl Harbor survivors left. Jim DeWitt’s memory is astounding. He has even been interviewed by the History Channel. He is a valuable resource and history “book” for the younger generations. It was the honor of Center for Hospice Care’s staff along with his family and caregivers to honor his service with a Veteran pinning. Jimmy has traveled many miles since he slept on the ground in Chicago at 15 years old. He traveled by sea, plane and hitchhiked his way across thousands of miles to find his one true love with whom he built a lovely life.