102-year-old WWII veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor reflects on his service in the U.S. Navy

Veterans Day is a time to honor the men and women who fought for the nation’s freedom. Washington is home to some veterans who served in some of the most significant battles in world history.

Harold Whitish is 102-years-old and is as sharp as a tack. He was born and raised on a farm in Montana. He moved to Yakima when he was a young man after making his decision to serve in the military. 

On Veterans Day, family and friends joined him at the Mount Rainier Eagles Aerie Hall in Eatonville to celebrate the holiday and reflect on his time in the service nearly 80 years ago.

"I don’t think there’s probably one island that I haven’t been at in the South Pacific," said Whitish.

He’s well-traveled because he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and survived Pearl Harbor. It was October of 1940 when he enlisted in the military at 21 years old. In 1941, Whitish and his crewmates shipped out to sea on the USS Sibley.

"A lot of things that happened when I was in the service that I can’t remember. I wish I could, but it’s gone through my memory," said Whitish.

He said, however, some things from the war he just can’t forget—like the challenges he and his crew faced at sea.

"We was out there for nine solid months on submarine patrol. And they brought food and ammunition and everything out to us all the time. We stayed at sea, we never went into port. Nine solid months," said Whitish.

He shared a vivid memory of his experience during the Battle of Christmas Island against the Imperial Japanese Navy.

"It was kind of nervous type thing to do because you didn’t know what they were going to do to you. They could have torpedoed us or something. But the day after Christmas, we left there and brought the ship back to Pearl. And when we got to Pearl Harbor, we got four torpedoes fired at us on the way in. And skipper maneuvered the ships so we went right between them. Then we dropped depth charges, all the depth charges we had left on that sub and we got record of that one being sunk. The other one we didn’t get record of because no one was there to witness it. But this time the plane flew over and said yeah we’d sunk it," said Whitish.

Whitish fought in 21 battles while in the Navy, earning him 11 major battle stars. However, it wasn’t until he was 99-years-old after an honor flight when his family said they started learning about his service to the country.

"We never heard stories until after we got home from that honor flight. And once we got home from the honor flight, he just started telling stories. It was like somebody opened up the spigots," said Kris Johnson, Whitish’ stepdaughter who treated her like his own child.

Johnson created a display at the Eagles Hall with several of Whitish’s mementos, including pictures, letters signed by presidents Harry Truman and Donald Trump, and a ceremonial card for crossing the equator twice. She said Whitish likely had not seen most of the items in decades.  

"This was in a box. So, a lot of this stuff I’ve never seen. And we just put it out two days ago. So it’s going to be a fun project to put it together," said Johnson.

"Bringing back some of the memories...this is some more pictures of Sibley," said Whitish as he pointed to a few pictures.

The Navy is part of his life, but Whitish said it’s the years after service he enjoyed most. He raised a son who also served in the military. Whitish was married to his wife for 45 years before she passed in 2016. He said they built a mobile home together and then a forever home on five acres of land in Graham that he still owns. 

"It’s all paid for in cash," he laughed. "For the property of building the house, and my workshop and everything we got, everything we put on there cost us $58,000. Now you can’t even a buy a fourth of an acre for that."

After his life in the service, Whitish worked 31 years as a boilermaker in the shipyards. He retired at age 64 in 1983. He said his secret to a long life is simple.

"Eat good and live happily and you’ll live to be 100 or more," laughed Whitish. "Live right, eat right, do good exercise and everything. You’ll live it."

He has had 102 years full of experiences but said there’s one thing left he hopes to achieve in his lifetime: the centennial mark of Pearl Harbor.

"I gotta live another 20 years," laughed Whitish. "I want to go to that 100th anniversary."

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