World War II Vet Talks Surviving Pearl Harbor, Owning Lake Shore Lanes & Living Life to the Fullest
Writer: Flannery Posner
James (Jim) DeWitt’s recollection of his life story — from his youth to his time serving in the military, to his years raising a family and running a business — is astoundingly detailed. His gentle demeanor, kind eyes and genuine smile immediately draws people in, but his story captivates anyone who has the privilege to hear it.
As a young boy of only four years old, DeWitt and his siblings were orphaned when their parents succumbed to tuberculosis. After eight years in an orphanage in Mexico, Ind., DeWitt was placed out on farms to work but ran away twice in search of something more.
“I didn’t run away because I was angry,” he says. “I ran away because I was hurt. I was looking for someone to love me, and I never found it.”
Eventually, after going back to the orphanage, he asked farmers in the area if they needed help.
“One of them gave me a job for $20 a month and my board and room, and that’s when my life changed,” he says. “I felt like somebody instead of something.”
It was his move to this farm that would change the course of his life in ways he couldn’t have imagined. DeWitt was 18 at the time, and the family he worked for was visited by some of their family from Florida, including a girl named Mary.
“I never saw any smile so perfect,” DeWitt says of her.
Mary’s family invited DeWitt to visit them in Florida. He hitchhiked from Indiana – a 2,000 mile round trip with only $8 in his pocket – to see the girl with the beautiful smile once again. But Mary was only 14, and DeWitt had enlisted in the navy and was awaiting his orders. He knew he would have to wait, but they would correspond by letters throughout his six years of service in the navy.
DeWitt joined the navy in 1939 and ended up on the USS Antares, a cargo ship stationed in Pearl Harbor. He quickly rose to captain’s yeoman due to his proficiency in shorthand. It was aboard the Antares that DeWitt would witness one of the most harrowing days in US history: December 7, 1941.
Even years later, DeWitt can recall with acute detail that fateful day in our nation’s history.
“I don’t think a lot of young people know about it,” he says of Pearl Harbor. “I don’t think they understand it.”
His eyes welled with tears as he recalled the sights and sounds in a Honolulu hospital in the days following the attack. His brother, who was also serving in the military, had been transported to that hospital just two days prior to the attack to be treated for jaundice. When DeWitt arrived, he could not have been prepared for what he saw.
“That was the worst experience, though. So many of the casualties that morning were attacks by fire bombs,” he says. “It was terrible that morning.”
After Pearl Harbor, DeWitt fulfilled his remaining time in the Navy in San Francisco and Guam. It was during those final months in Guam that he and Mary sent letters to each other every day, and as soon as he was out of the military, he traveled back to Florida to propose.
DeWitt and Mary were married in 1946.
“I’d never seen her, never touched her, never saw her for six years, but I was as certain she was the one for me as anybody could ever be,” he says. “I never had a doubt.”
After they were married, they settled in Wawaka, Ind., where they owned and operated a small grocery store. Seven years later, with A&P and Kroger rapidly growing, DeWitt sold his store and put an offer on a bowling alley in Culver, Ind. In May 1953, DeWitt and his family moved to Culver to run the Lake Shore Lanes, or simply, the Bowling Alley.
The Bowling Alley, located on Lake Shore Drive where the Lakehouse Grill currently operates, was a true family business. James and Mary ran the business with the help of their four children, who peeled potatoes and waited tables. Business was slow to start, but it soon became a popular place in town for bowlers, visitors to the lake and locals alike.
“People said our water was better, too,” he jokes.
James and Mary owned the bowling alley until December 1977. They remained in Culver for their retirement, all of their children staying close by in either Culver, Carmel or Lafayette. His beloved Mary passed away in 2015. DeWitt can state exactly the number of years, months, days and hours since that day.
After searching for belonging, purpose and love throughout his youth, DeWitt has lived his life in a way that has garnered honor, respect and, yes, true love. For all he has endured, DeWitt does not feel worthy of the recognition.
“I know that’s the way history works, you know, the last ones get all the credit, but it’s the way people are, the way they shake your hand, the way they talk to you, it’s something these other guys don’t get, and I get it,” DeWitt says. “Makes you feel unworthy of it.”
His experience, his story, his service is a valuable connection for present generations to understand and appreciate the past. For his service and contributions to our country and to Culver, DeWitt is certainly worthy of all the gratitude and recognition he receives.