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BROOKFIELD — While serving in the Navy, James Whitaker realized a colleague of his had jumped from a ship and Whitaker and others did what they could to save him and his life.
The Brookfield resident said he and others were at sea near the Panama Canal and one of the sailors was tasked with cleaning up the captain’s yacht, which is used to ferry the captain to and from shore and vessel.
“It was used as a taxi to transport the captain. I was doing my rounds that evening to make sure everything was secure when I noticed a pair of shoes with socks rolled up and also a wallet inside. There was also a lifeline undone by the side of the ship. I opened the wallet and found out which sailor it was,” said Whitaker.
He ran to the ship’s deck and quarterdeck and reported what he had seen.
“There was an immediate search of the vessel but the sailor could not be found. They decided he must have jumped overboard so they turned back. By the grace of God, they were able to bring the boat exactly where it had jumped. Everyone was trying to spot him. The water was choppy that day with a 6 foot swell and a cloudy, overcast day, and we were trying to spot its head. It was a bad day. We spotted him and they called ‘Man Overboard!’ “ said Whitaker.
“I went to the side of the ship to look for him. When we pulled him out of the water he looked really scared and ready to cry.
He said he believed the sailor left his shoes in hopes of being found and that he might be granted an early release.
“That’s my opinion. We had his wallet, so we knew who it was,” said Whitaker.
Whitaker was a lifeboat helmsman, who is the person in charge of a boat, especially its navigation and steering. He said he looked after and piloted the boats.
Whitaker was drafted in 1968 fresh out of high school and joining the Marine Corps for the first time.
“When I got home and told my parents, my dad was upset because he wanted me to join the navy. I went back and rejoined the navy. My dad was so proud of me, said Whitaker.
He went to boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois and then to a school in Sandy Hook, California.
While in the Navy, Whitaker traveled to the Panama Canal, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Acapulco and Norfolk, Virginia.
He said he remembered driving the captain to a hotel where he met his wife. He said that while the captain was away he steered his boat.
Whitaker said he was trained by a non-commissioned officer in how to drive and maneuver the boat.
“You have to catch the waves well and learn how to moor them. It takes a lot of practice to drive a boat. he said.
The ship was heading for Vietnam when Whitaker’s father, Roy, died aged 59 in 1970, so he was discharged after two years, six months and 29 days. At the time, he had a younger brother and sister still in high school.
“I am proud to have served my country. The older I get, the more I realize how important it was in my life to do that. I am very proud to be a member of the Navy,” he said.
After college, Whitaker went to Youngstown State University to study law and real estate. He then married and then divorced.
Whitaker, who is retired, works full-time as a ground technician at Sharon Regional Medical Center and also volunteers with Shenango Valley Animal Rescue.
“I love animals and help them, we rescued kittens one night. There is an exceptional group of people who do this,” he said.
Additionally, on July 4, Whitaker performs tap dancing as part of Taps Across America. He also plays tap at Hubbard Union Cemetery and Wyngate Manor.
BRANCH OF SERVICE: Navy
MILITARY HONOURS: National Defense Medal and Good Conduct Medal
OCCUPATION: Retired and floor technician at Sharon Regional Medical Center