March 13, 2010

For a fallen friend

RAY ROUTHIER

— By

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 7, 2008: Howard Cederlund, of Wiscasset, is a Navy veteran of WWII who after 50 years found the family of the only sailor killed on his ship during a battle.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 7, 2008: Howard Cederlund, of Wiscasset, is a Navy veteran of WWII who after 50 years found the family of the only sailor killed on his ship, the USS Menard, during a battle. [ed note: this photo is supposed to be blue]

Jack Milton

Staff Writer

WISCASSET — It was a simple thought after a tragic act.

During the final days of World War II, Howard Cederlund, an 18-year-old gunner's mate on the USS Menard, lost his close friend and mentor, 26-year-old Eugene White, following a kamikaze attack on their ship.

Cederlund very much wanted to find his fallen friend's family and tell them how much White meant to him.

''Gene was a wonderful guy, and he was responsible for me doing well on the ship, for gaining more responsibility,'' said Cederlund, 81, of Wiscasset. ''He helped me rise to gunner's mate. I wanted to tell his family what kind of sailor he was.''

Sixty-three years later, as he joins the nation today in celebrating Veterans Day, White can say he reached his goal.

But it took him almost 60 years to do it.

SWARMED BY JAPANESE PLANES

Cederlund joined the Navy in 1944 at age 17. He saw combat during the nearly three-month battle for Okinawa in 1945. After the war, he was part of a naval force that delivered troops of occupation to Japan.

When recalling April 6, 1945 --  the day White was wounded -- Cederlund begins by describing the noise and the incredible amount of ''junk'' hitting the water. He later learned that some 350 Japanese kamikaze planes had attacked his ship and others nearby.

''I tell people it was like being in an (IMAX) theater with the sound turned way up,'' he says. ''Pieces of planes, shrapnel, shells, all sorts of junk just falling into the water around us.''

At some point during the battle, Cederlund saw a lone kamikaze streaking toward him. It was headed to a point on the ship between his gun station and White's station.

Hit by Navy fire and losing pieces of its body, the Japanese plane flew about 20 feet over Cederlund's head and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

But as it headed toward the USS Menard, the kamikaze drew a flurry of fire from other U.S. ships. When the attack was over, White had been hit. Cederlund doesn't know whether White was wounded by enemy or ''friendly'' fire.

White was taken to a hospital ship, which was also hit later by a kamikaze, and eventually to a hospital in Guam, where he died.

Cederlund was grateful for all that White had done for him. He remembered how White had helped him rise through the ranks, how he had helped make Cederlund a better sailor.

And he remembered how White had shown him and his fellow shipmates kindness by sharing his wife's cookies, which became incredibly precious reminders of home in the midst of the terror and drudgery of war.

''I remember taking my cookies and sneaking off to my gun tub to eat them, so nobody else would take them,'' he said.

After leaving the Navy in May 1946, Cederlund began trying to find White's family to tell them what a fine sailor he was. ''And I wanted to thank his wife for those cookies,'' Cederlund said.

NEVER FORGOT HIS NAVY BUDDY

Cederlund faced a major obstacle from the get-go -- he didn't know the first name of White's wife. And he soon realized that White was an awfully common last name, even in the relatively small place of Ocean Springs, Miss., Eugene White's hometown.

He became the USS Menard's historian, organizing reunions and collecting information on how to find former shipmates. But for decades, no information on White's family turned up.

Cederlund worked a variety of jobs after the war, including a stint as a computer systems analyst and as owner of his own sawmill.

He retired in his mid-50s to explore the country with his wife in a motor home.

But Cederlund never forgot about his Navy buddy. During his many cross-country drives, he looked up old shipmates and asked about Gene White. No luck.

Then in the late 1990s, Cederlund connected with his former gunnery officer, Lt. Alfred Thibeaux, who was living in Florida.

Cederlund asked Thibeaux if he would like to come to one of the upcoming reunions of former Menard crew members.

Thibeaux, who was suffering from ALS, often called Lou Gehrig's disease, couldn't come. But he had something he wanted to give Cederlund in his capacity as ship's historian.

It was a letter from Eugene White's widow, Ruth.

Now Cederlund had a name.

A DISCOVERY ON THE INTERNET

The letter also contained the names of White's children, Johnny and Nancy.

In it, Ruth White thanked Thibeaux for visiting her after the war.

She also talked about the cookies, and how after she sent one batch, she realized it wasn't enough for all of her husband's friends on board, so she went back to her local rationing board and made a special request for 10 pounds of extra sugar. She got friends to contribute their sugar rations, too.

After he got the letter, Cederlund began searching again, even though he already had made several dozen phone calls.

One day in 2002, while doing one of his many Internet searches, Cederlund came across the name of John Eugene White in Mississippi, along with a phone number. He called the number and found Eugene White's son.

''We had just come back from Dallas to visit our kids, and the phone was ringing,'' said John E. White, 67, of Ocean Springs.

''He told me who he was and that he wanted me to come to the (2002) reunion, and that he knew my daddy.''

John White said neither he nor his sister, Nancy Wilson, knew much about their father's wartime activities or how he died.

Their mother, who died two years before Cederlund made contact with the family, could not bring herself to talk about it. She also was asked by the Navy not to talk about it.

''It was hard on the women (during World War II), not only because they lost loved ones, but because they couldn't talk about it,'' Wilson said.

''When we got that call from Howard, it was quite a shock. He deserves a lot of praise.''

John and Nancy went to the 2002 reunion of the Menard crew in Colorado and began to learn about their father as a sailor. They heard about some of the tedious work he had to do, including counting spent shell casings immediately after the gun on which he had worked had fired at the enemy.

They also learned how highly regarded Eugene White was by the other sailors, most of whom were younger than he.

Wilson said being at a reunion of her father's shipmates and their families was like being ''in a roomful of mothers and fathers.''

A MEANINGFUL RESOLUTION

Cederlund included Ruth White's handwritten letter in a book he has compiled on the history of the USS Menard, ''This Is the Way It Was.'' He gives the book to crew members, their families and interested parties.

The book is in the collection of the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, home of famed Adm. Chester Nimitz. Cederlund says he has no intention of trying to get it published, but it may be downloaded at www.ussmenard.com/book.html.

Also included in the book is a Western Union telegram sent to Ruth White by the Navy notifying White of her husband's death. The telegram did not include any of the details of his death, and asked her not to divulge the name of his ship to anyone.

When Cederlund finally found White's children, he told them a lot more than the name of the ship.

John White says he was glad to learn so much about his father. And he was rather amazed that Cederlund had spent so much time and energy in the hopes of finding his family.

''It really meant a lot to me for Howard to take that much time to find us,'' he said.

Cederlund says it meant a lot to him as well.

''All I could think of all those years was that if my father had died out there, I would have wanted someone to tell me what happened. That was one of the things that drove me,'' Cederlund said.

''Most of my life, I had never heard the word 'closure.' But I truly think that's what I have now, and it's a wonderful feeling.''

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

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