(Editor's note: Gilbert "Whit" Whitaker died October 31, 2019. He was a Navy veteran of both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns of World War II and was present at both D-Day and Iwo Jima. This story ran on the 75th anniversary of D-Day last June. With it being Veterans Day, we thought it fitting to run it once again.)
Gilbert Whitaker, Jr. better known as Whit, was a part of the D-Day invasion.
Thursday, June 6, marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. This event happened in 1944 when allied forces launched a combined air, navel and land assault on Nazi-occupied France.
Whit joined the Navy when he was just 19 years old and was assigned to the USS Nevada. He was originally from Grant Mountain and his family farmed. He said that he decided to go into the military over farming because he preferred to go and do something outside of the area.
He said that his job aboard the Nevada was as a sighter and trainer.
“My memory is a little vague,” he said, “but I will tell you what I remember.”
He said that he remembers going up to the beaches of Normandy for battle. He remembers that their guns shot 20 miles inland and they were to help the ground forces. Once the ground forces were able to get in the battle zone, the Navy was able to leave.
They battled for 3 solid days and he remembers the boats moving sideways in the water when they fired their 11-inch guns. He was in control of the 5-inch guns.
He said that after battling in one spot, they were then moved to the Mediterranean Sea just south of France because of another invasion. They battled there for the same reason as they did in the other places and then were let go for the same reason as well.
He said after the battles, they were able to return to the states for a few days. He said they were docked in New York for two days and then transferred to Norfolk, Virginia. The crew was able to take 7 days leave and visit their parents.
After that he went back and went through the Panama Canal, but he does not remember much about that.
Once in the Pacific, he does remember being assigned to Iwo Jima. He said once they were there, they battled the ground forces for weeks with bombers flying over and bombing their ships.
“I don’t know how even a fly survived through all of the bombing and shooting on the shore,” he said.
He recalls that this is where they met the most resistance and how the Marines took a beating. He said that they stayed in that location as long as they needed.
He said that while they were battling, their ship was bombed by a kamikaze or suicide plane. There were a lot of people who died because of that. There were 2,500 on the ship at the time when the bombing happened.
He recalls that they had to bury a lot of the dead at sea. He does not know how many sailors died on the boat, but he does know it was a whole lot.
He was proud of President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs. It helped to save a lot of military lives and ended the war quickly, Whit said.
After the surrender, their ship patrolled the China Sea before coming back to the United States. He was discharged after 26 months of service. He said that he was first sent to Mobile and then to Memphis before officially becoming discharged.
“I never regretted joining the Navy,” he said.
After he was discharged, he worked for a few years at Starkey Grocery, then at the Ford dealership in Gadsden. He later worked at T.C. Crain's Buick dealership and then opened his own businesses in Guntersville. He opened Whitaker Towing in 1960 and retired in 1992 from the business but still continued to be active because he likes to work hard.
The Nevada has been called “the most battered ship” in naval history. It survived Pearl Harbor, the suicide bombing and being part of 2 nuclear blasts. It was built in 1914 and served in both world wars. In 1948, it was deemed obsolete. It was used for target practice by other Navy ships and continued to float through heavy bombardment but was finally sunk by a torpedo from a bomber.