As we sat in the memorial service on the deck of USS Yorktown at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, I thought, “He did it again. He brought us here from across the country.” Private First Class Dick Whitaker knew how to pull people together and inspire them to be greater.
Our journey to Dick’s friendship began in Plymouth, Indiana, where we interviewed his comrade, PFC John Speheger. John and Dick had served in Fox Company of the 29th Marines on Okinawa and had fought on Sugar Loaf Hill.
John told us in gruesome detail about Okinawa and PFC Carl Sproatt, whom he had carried from the field after Carl was wounded by machine gun fire. Carl was so badly injured that he was placed on the dead pile. Then Corpsman Harry Murray spotted a bubble coming from Carl’s lips. Many years later we interviewed Carl in Lakeland, Florida.
At the end of Carl’s interview he asked where we were going next. We told him Charleston, but we didn’t have anybody to interview there. Carl looked through his address box and gave us the name of his Fox Company friend, Dick Whitaker. We called Dick that night. Dick had recently been burned by a reporter who had sweetly eased up to her agenda question, “How did it feel to kill all of those civilians on Okinawa?”
Dick grilled us like a cheap hot dog when we arrived. By the third tape his fantastic wife, Eileen, came home and Dick said, “Come here. I want you to meet my friends Don and Hershel.”
When Dick proclaimed you a “friend,” it was a priceless gift and not loosely given.
Years later Dick was interviewed by the American Heroes Channel. They covered his windows on the outside to block the flair light. Before filming, the director looked through the viewfinder and said, “I see a flicker.” When the show broadcast I sent Dick an email. “You were great, but I saw a flicker.” Dick responded “MY INTERVIEW WITH YOU AND HERSHEL STANDS OUT AS THE BEST. IT'S THE ONE I WILL ‘HAND DOWN.’”
In 2007 we stopped in Dick’s hometown of Saugerties, New York, and sent him doctored photos of people lining up to see his boyhood home and of how they had renamed the school in his honor. Dick’s response was “YOU GUYS!”
In the years between, Hershel and I talked often about returning to see Dick “one more time.” When Sue took ill it became impossible and the pressure became greater as Dick aged.
Three months after Sue died, we made that trip. Eileen was now very ill and the caregiver burden had fallen hard on Dick. He took my arm for balance in the hall. I was sad, but honored. Dick was overwhelmed that we had come so far to spend an hour with him. When we left, this battled-hardened Marine turned to us with tears in his eyes and said, “I love you guys.” It was a quiet walk back to the van.