Culver history students had the rare opportunity to hear about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from an eyewitness and survivor on April 6. Culver resident Jim DeWitt, 95, shared his memories of Dec. 7, 1941, with John Buggeln and Gary Christlieb’s history classes during two class sessions in Roberts Auditorium.
DeWitt, who is featured in a History Channel 75th anniversary documentary that students watched last fall, said he became an orphan by age 7 and spent his youth in an Indiana orphanage. He spent his teen years hitchhiking around the country, including traveling hundreds of miles to Florida to see his future bride, Mary. The couple continued corresponding after DeWitt enlisted in the Navy in 1939.
DeWitt was eventually stationed on the USS Antares, where one of his oddest experiences was running into a Marine who turned out to be his brother, John, on a separate ship in the Pacific Ocean.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Antares was towing another ship to Pearl Harbor. Eventually a submarine, which had followed the Antares the entire journey, was detected and sank by the destroyer USS Ward. It soon became obvious the event was a genuine attack and not merely a training exercise, and Japanese planes began strafing the Antares as everyone was ordered below deck.
An emotional Dewitt told students of his subsequent visit to the hospital in Honolulu to visit his brother — who had not been wounded, but had jaundice — and his witnessing the suffering of so many sailors as a result of the attack.
Dewitt served six years in the Navy, was discharged in 1944, and married his beloved Mary four weeks later. The couple would later purchase the bowling alley and restaurant located at the site of today’s Lakehouse Grille on Lake Shore Drive in Culver, which the family operated from 1953 to 1978.
Students and teachers alike had the opportunity to interact with DeWitt and ask him questions. One skill developed in Culver’s AP Humanities courses is understanding primary sources, noted Buggeln and Christlieb.
“Mr. DeWitt gave our students an engaging firsthand account of one the most pivotal days in U.S. and world history,” said Buggeln. “It certainly made those 75-year-old events come alive for us and gave students an extraordinary opportunity to understand an event through primary source testimony. We are very grateful to Mr. DeWitt for his service and generosity in sharing his memorable story.”
At 95, DeWitt has become something of a spokesman on behalf of Pearl Harbor survivors and World War II veterans in general. He was among a small handful of survivors invited to Hawaii for the 70th and 75th anniversary commemorations of the attack, as well as taking part in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. He has also been the subject of numerous newspaper articles, websites, and interviews.