WWII veteran joined the Navy and saw the world

Roland Whitely reminisces about his World War II experiences as a gunner on Merchant Marines ships transporting military supplies around the world. Behind him is a photo on a pillow of his beloved late wife of 71 years, Allene. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life
Roland Whitely reminisces about his World War II experiences as a gunner on Merchant Marines ships transporting military supplies around the world. Behind him is a photo on a pillow of his beloved late wife of 71 years, Allene. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life
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“Join the Navy and see the world” has been a major recruiting slogan for the Navy for decades, and it proved to be true for Navy veteran Roland Whitely.

Whitely, who served in World War II and turns 100 years old in September, has a prized memento from his time in the service. After he first shipped out, he bought a huge Rand-McNally map of the world that he kept at his parents’ home in Idaho. Whitely was able to return home occasionally during the war and would draw on the map all the routes his ships took. The completed map now has dozens of lines drawn all over the world’s oceans and is better than a diary for accurately reflecting Whitely’s incredible years of service.

Whitely mostly grew up in rural Idaho, although his dad was in construction so the family lived in Oregon and California when his dad had jobs there. After high school, he got a draft “notice” from the U.S. Government, and knowing he would be drafted into the Army, he signed up to join the Navy on Oct. 1, 1943, and asked to be assigned to a PT boat. In basic training in Idaho, everyone had to fire one shot to determine their artillery skill. Whitely grew up hunting and shooting and surreptitiously picked up three bullets, firing all of them into the same hole on the target.

“So many in our group were city kids and didn’t know how to shoot,” said Whitely, who was told that the military needed sharpshooters and was assigned to be Gunner No. 13 in his 13-man unit.

He was a gunner “from there on out,” he said. After further training on Treasure Island and Seabee Camp, Whitely was assigned to his first ship. He served on Liberty supply ships operated by the Merchant Marines that had 12 gun-tubs added to them, 10 for 20-mm-caliber and two for three-inch-caliber guns, for defense.

Roland Whitely purchased a huge Rand-McNally map after he joined the Navy.
Roland Whitely purchased a huge Rand-McNally map after he joined the Navy, and every time he was home on leave, he would draw the routes he had just been on, creating a colorful and memorable record of his service. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life

Whitely’s first voyage, which was to New Caledonia in the South Pacific, took 32 days, and he explained that because it would take three to four weeks to unload the ships once they arrived in a port, the Navy gunners would be transferred to another fully loaded ship and take off again.

After spending time in the Pacific, “I wanted to see the Atlantic,” said Whitely, and he did. He went through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to Naples, Italy. His ship was in port when around 2 a.m. Whitely heard shooting. It was Mount Vesuvius erupting, shooting hot magma into the air. “I watched it all night,” Whitely said.

Whitely and his fellow gunners also went to Algiers, the capital of Algeria on the Mediterranean, and headed down the coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic to New York. “We saw the lights of New York City as we approached, and then I had 30 days leave,” Whitely said. “I left New York on the train, and in Omaha, Nebraska, the railroad tracks were four feet under water. The buses were full, but I bribed a bus driver with a bottle of booze I had picked up, and he ‘found’ a seat for me. I got around a lot on buses.”

Onboard the ships, the lookouts were constantly on alert for enemy submarines. “We wore big helmets with built-in ear-phones so we could hear each other,” Whitely said. “We watched for periscopes sticking out of the water. We got hit two or three times but nothing serious. They would usually strike at dusk or dawn.

“We had quite a few close calls, but it wasn’t our time yet. One time we were in Manila Bay in the Philippines, and the Japanese were working their way toward us. Our captain got our ship stuck on a sandbar. We were sitting ducks. Two planes came at us, and we shot them down. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get those SOBs.’ There was no time to be afraid.

“Another time three torpedoes were shot straight at us. I was on the 20-mm gun, and the torpedo went right by me so close I could have stepped on it. The others missed too. I was scared. Everyone was always scared. If we didn’t hit them, they would hit us.”

When Whitley got home the next time, he told his mom about his close encounter with the torpedo. “I told her I had the weirdest feeling, and my mom said, ‘I screamed right at the same time it happened. I knew something had happened to you.’ My dad said, ‘I could hear her screaming.’”

Whitely’s ship was in the Gilbert Islands, where a series of battles were fought from August 1942 through February 1944, as the U.S. launched its Pacific Theater campaign.

“We had supplies for the Marines, and as we approached, we had Navy ships escorting us on both sides,” Whitely said. “A ship conducted mine sweeps ahead of us, and we followed that ship. They would go back later and blow up the mines.”

One perk to being a Navy gunner on the Merchant Marines ships, as opposed to the crew, was that food and coffee were available at all hours. “We ordered from menu items written on a blackboard, and food was served on a plate,” Whitely said. “We stayed in the staterooms usually reserved for passengers, although there were four to six fellows to a room, but there were tile bathrooms. We were treated like kings.”

Whitely’s family had a 400-acre farm on an island in a river outside Payette, Idaho, and Whitely would go there whenever he could by taking a 20-hour bus trip from Treasure Island when he was in port and had four days leave or longer. “A round-trip ticket cost $16.17, which was the military rate,” Whitely said. “The regular fare was $30 to $40. I made $100 a month, and a Seaman got $66. Payette had a population of about 5,000, and folks would ask my parents, ‘Why does he get home so often? Why isn’t he out there fighting?’”

Whitley left the Navy just before the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs over Japan on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9 in 1945 and returned home. After the war, he and his dad ran a real estate office and then built houses.

“My dad wanted me to be an electrician, and I followed an electrician around for a few weeks and passed the test,” Whitely said. “Same with plumbing. I followed a plumber around for a month and then passed the test. My dad also taught me how to build fireplaces, and I have built a lot of them.”

Six or seven months after Whitely returned home, he married Allene, who grew up six miles from his family in Idaho, but they never met until after the war. “I had created a list of what I wanted in a wife, and she fulfilled it,” he said.

They raised three daughters in Salem, who all earned business degrees at Oregon State University. Next the couple traveled 200,000 miles over eight years in a motor home towing a Crown Victoria before buying a house in Mount Angel, where they lived for 10 years.

Allene passed away six years ago after 71 years of marriage. “She was a wonderful, wonderful person,” Whitely said. He moved into Summerfield in Tigard six years ago, and having been active all his life, Whitely took up walking and now treks almost daily all over the community. “After I fell twice, my daughter said I should get a walker,” said Whitely, who also is active in the VFW in Tualatin.

Reflecting on his life, Whitely said, “It sure has gone fast.” And he is appreciative that he emerged unscathed from his service in WWII. “Being as I lived through it, it was like a vacation,” he said.

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