World War II veteran Wendell Whitlock says he is honored to have been selected as Coweta County's 2007 Veteran of the Year, but insists he is no more deserving than other local veterans.
"This is the greatest honor I have ever received," Whitlock says. "And I am as grateful as anyone can be. But there are others who did much more than me. As far as I'm concerned anybody who served deserves this honor. But I'm very proud and humble to accept and hope I've done some good for some people over the years."
The Veteran of the Year honor is presented to veterans who've distinguished themselves not just in the military but in their contributions to the community, state and nation, according to Dick Stender, Commander of American Legion Post 57, which sponsors the award.
The ceremonies begin at 11:00a today at the Newnan city park at Jackson Street and Temple Avenue.
"I don't know if people realize how much Wendell has done to help this county, but he's literally served the citizens of Coweta County for a lifetime," Stender says. "We had lots of excellent candidates for Veteran of the Year honors, but I don't think we could have found anyone more deserving."
Whitlock, 82, was raised on the family farm on Roscoe Road. He was one of 12 children, and Whitlock says all had a hand in running the farm that produced cotton, corn and soybeans.
"It was our living and our livelihood. It's all we knew and all we did," he says. "I was just born to it and never thought I'd do anything else.
Whitlock's plans changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. Whitlock was 16. He remembers hearing the news on the radio and jumping on his bike to pedal across the countryside informing everyone he saw that America was at war.
"I didn't know what else to do," he says. "It made sense at the time."
Whitlock graduated from Newnan High School in May 1942, but he didn't immediately join the service. Because the family farm's goods were vital to the war effort, all the male members of the Whitlock family were granted agricultural draft deferments. But two of Whitlock's brothers gave up their draft immunity to join the service, and by 1944, at age 19, Whitlock was ready to go to war.
"I figured it was time for me to get involved," he says. "So I told my parents and then I joined the Navy."
Whitlock was assigned to the navy's elite combat construction unit, the Seabees, and sent for training at Camp Peary, Virginia. There he learned the heavy construction business from the ground up, including how to operate every kind of earthmover imaginable. His unit was trained to build combat airplane runways, which Whitlock says was just like building roads.
"If you could build a runway you could build a road," Whitlock says, "and a few years later that's what Coweta County needed. I was glad I had the training."
After his unit was shipped to Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco, the Navy changed Whitlock's job and assigned him to a fuel and water tanker, the U.S.S. Tamalpais.
The Tamalpais sailed from San Francisco on June 7, 1945, one month after Germany surrendered to end the war in Europe. Whitlock's ship stopped at Pearl Harbor then continued on to Manus Island in the Admiralty Islands chain. After delivering fuel and water to several ships in the area, the Tamalpais set out for the Phillipines, and on Aug. 10, arrived at Leyte, which in October 1944 had been the site of the largest naval battle of the war.
During the voyage to Leyte, atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The sailors knew the war was nearing an end even before Japan accepted unconditional terms of surrender from the Allied forces on Aug. 15.
There was even less doubt about the war's outcome when a Japanese submarine surfaced in the middle of Whitlock's task force and surrendered.
"When I saw that thing come up I said, 'We just rode right over that ship,'" Whitlock says. "It's a good thing he surrendered or there would have been trouble."
A formal surrender ceremony was scheduled for Sept. 2, 1945, aboard U.S. battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The Tamalpais was ordered to sail to Japan.
Whitlock's ship was the third in line to enter Tokyo Bay, after the Missouri and its two destroyer escorts. Whitlock remembers watching tugs pull back the submarine nets across the mouth of Tokyo Bay to let the huge warship pass. Then the Tamalpais docked beside the Missouri, less than 150 yards from the spot where the peace treaty was signed that officially ended World War II.
"It was like you were sitting in your lawn chair right across the street," Whitlock says. "You could see everything.
Whitlock said he was most impressed by the precision of the surrender ceremony, which was scheduled so closely those in charge had even calculated how long it would take a Japanese admiral with a wooden leg to walk from the back of the Missouri to the surrender table and be seated in time for the 9 a.m. signing ceremony, which was immediately followed by a massive flyover of Allied planes.
"Those planes were already in the air when the signing started," Whitlock says. "And the timing was so good that as soon as the last signature was made, thousands of planes filled the sky. It was a show of strength to make sure everybody knew who won."
Whitlock remained in Japan as part of the occupation force for over a year. On one of his early patrols, he helped liberate 17 American prisoners of war from a Japanese coal mine.
The men were filthy and starving, calloused all over from crouching and crawling through the mines. "You'd never seen anything like it," Whitlock says. "They were skin and bones."
The freed prisoners were taken to a hospital ship and Whitlock's crew later invited all 17 to their ship for supper. Only one of the POWs was strong enough to walk up the Tamalpais' gangplank and accept the invitation.
Whitlock also did guard duty at several Japanese cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where U.S. atom bombs had fallen. Whitlock will never forget the devastation.
"At Hiroshima, there was nothing left in town but one steel skeleton," he says. "Everything else was just dirt. The whole city was gone. I've never seen anything like it and I hope I never do again."
After almost a year in Japan, Whitlock's ship headed home. A huge storm near the Aleutian Islands threatened to sink the ship, but the Tamalpais held together, and when the ship sailed through the Panama Canal en route to Mobile Bay, Whitlock knew his war was almost over.
After a short stay in Mobile, Whitlock was deployed to Jacksonville, Fla., where he was discharged in June 1946.
He and some friends paid a man $25 to drive them to the Atlanta bus station in his new convertible. But once in Atlanta, Whitlock decided he didn't want to take the bus home and started hitchhiking. He caught one ride to Fairburn and another to Duncan's barbecue, which was then located at the corner of Roscoe Road and Jackson St.
From there Whitlock walked less than a mile to his house.
"I've never been so happy to be anywhere in my life," he says.
Ten months later, he married his sweetheart, Elva Allen. The couple recently celebrated their 60th anniversary. They have three children, Clara Whitlock Hackney, James Wendell Whitlock Jr., and Edward Allen Whitlock.
After the war, Whitlock became co-owner of both a service station and a trucking company. But in 1948, he left private business and went to work for Coweta County, starting as a shotgun-carrying prison guard. He was soon overseeing county road building programs. His Seabees' training in heavy equipment and construction was put to good use.
"We were busy back then," he recalls. "Most of the roads were still dirt. People wanted to get out of the mud and on paved roads so they could go to town and spend money. We helped them do just that."
In 1961, Whitlock was appointed Coweta County Warden and Road Superintendent. In 1978, he was named the county's Superintendent of Public Works, a position he held until he retired in 1988.
Whitlock supervised the construction of all new subdivision roads when Coweta's residential growth boom began in the mid-'80s. He still looks at some of the roads he oversaw and says he's proud of the job the county did.
"I've always said this county belongs to the people, all the people, and I was always doing my best to make sure they got the best possible work for their money. I think we did well. I think this is the best county in the United States, and I believe it will stay that way."
In addition to many other local honors, the huge recreation complex on Hwy. 34 at White Oak Creek was named the J. Wendell Whitlock Recreational Complex in his honor in 1994.