Friday, December 26, 2014

Jim Whinery: World War II vet views life through rear-view mirror

Jim Whinery will tell you he wasn’t much of a forward thinker as a younger man.

After all, as a rear turret gunner in a Dauntless dive bomber, he never got to see where he and his pilot were headed – only where they’d been and who was chasing them.

In fact, at 91, the Modesto resident now spends his days looking back, remembering his days in the Marines and in the Pacific during World War II. He surrounds himself with mementos and photos from what he considers the most adventurous time of his life. There is but one regret:

“I had three recommendations to go to Pensacola (Florida) to become a pilot,” Whinery said. “But I didn’t take it. I would have had to commit to eight more years. Woulda, shoulda, coulda ... .”

Because if he had become a pilot, yes, he probably would have flown during the Korean War and maybe even stuck around for Vietnam and made a career of it. Instead, he mustered out and became a welder and machinist by trade.

“I worked on a job just about everywhere in California,” Whinery said.

Many of those jobs involved working with or around asbestos, a material treasured because it didn’t burn – until it became a known cause of cancer and respiratory problems.

“I brought asbestos in the house with me every day,” he said. His wife, Glenna, who taught in the Sylvan School District, shook the dust off of his work pants and washed them.

“She died of mesothelioma (a diseased caused by asbestos exposure) eight years ago,” he said.

They both were born in Tabler, Okla., and settled in Modesto after the war.

“When I was born, the preacher’s wife and the neighbor’s wife delivered me,” Whinery said. “It would have taken the doc two weeks to a month to get to me, and my mother wasn’t going to wait.”

He was born in a home with no running water or indoor plumbing of any kind. The town, Tabler, is little more than a spot on the map these days.

“It’s just gone,” Whinery said. “It just disappeared.”

He joined the Marines and was sent in 1943 to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides island chain in the South Pacific, where he and his dive bomber pilot flew with Lt. Greg “Pappy” Boyington, later immortalized in the TV show “Baa, Baa Black Sheep.”

“We flew side by side,” Whinery said. “They flew Corsairs. He waved to me (from his plane). There were three battles where they kept (Japanese Zero fighters) off of us.”

Bombs from Whinery’s plane hammered a Japanese carrier that, he was told later, sank. “It’s still down there as far as I know,” he said.

In one battle, a Japanese plane came so near that Whinery could see the pilot’s face as he shot down the Zero. The threat of being killed, and seeing the loser up close, is a moment etched his memory.

Others aren’t so dramatic, including being in a plane his pilot chose to fly upside down. And when they buzzed villages inhabited by cannibals on the island of Efate, they were on their own.

“You’d look down and they had their shields and throwing their spears at us,” he said. “And I have a Thompson submachine gun buried on Efate. I want to go back and get it, but I don’t think the years will let me.”

In late 1944, he was on Admiralty Island in New Guinea awaiting to board a ship headed to Iwo Jima, where perhaps the most famous battle of the war in the Pacific took place in early 1945. But the ship filled up and he was ordered to stay ashore on Admiralty. Many of the men on that carrier perished during the fight for Iwo Jima.

By that time, Whinery had two years of air combat experience. “They’d send you back home (for R&R),” he said. “I went home and didn’t return.”

In August 1945, atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nakasaki and ended the war. That’s when they offered Whinery the opportunity to attend flight school and sit in the part of the plane facing forward. Instead, he mustered out in 1946.

“I’ve regretted 100 times not signing up, staying in the United States Marine Corps and being a pilot,” Whinery said.

Oh, he later flew ultralight planes here in the Valley, but it was nothing like the speed, thrill and, yes, danger of being in a warplane and in a war.

“Talking about it is one thing,” he said. “Being there and seeing it is a different thing entirely.”

Instead, he became a welder. He and Glenna were married in 1946, and eventually moved to Modesto to raise their family.

He worked on boilers in steam rooms, where there was lots of asbestos. He welded on jobs from Fresno to Santa Cruz to Contra Costa County, and virtually all of them involved asbestos. After Glenna’s death in 2006, the family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit and won a jury award, a major portion of which he donated to a mesothelioma research foundation.

Meanwhile, the asbestos still in his own lungs requires him to keep oxygen tanks handy.

The Marine memorabilia that decorates his room reminds him of the most exciting, threatening and glorious time of his life.

“It sure does,” Whinery said. “It was the greatest, for sure.”

From the rear turret of the Dauntless dive bomber, in battles over the Pacific Ocean, he looked back so that he could go forward.

Story and Photo Gallery:

No comments:

Post a Comment