OKEECHOBEE -- Veteran Jack Sutherland always thought it was his duty to help his parents and younger siblings, and he believes God blessed him for his faithfulness. Mr. Sutherland was the 10th of 14 children, and when he was 16, he left his home in Dickerson County, Va. to go to NYA Training School. The war had started, he explained, and they were taking all the men out of the factories so they were giving the kids the opportunity to go to training school to be trained as electricians or for machine work, things like that. It wasn’t a long course, he said. Maybe six or eight weeks. His sister had already completed it, and she was working in a torpedo plant in Detroit.
When he finished his training, he went to Detroit and got a job working in a gauge company that made measuring gauges that they checked micrometers with. It was very critical at that time, he said. He got paid 50 cents an hour and was quite the big shot then! He said he got paid every week so he would send one pay check home to his parents to help them and then keep the next one to pay his sister and her husband a little bit for rent and then pay for whatever else he needed. He said his brother-in-law wouldn’t take his money, but he made his sister take it. He wasn’t there long though, because when he turned 17, he went back to Virginia and joined the Navy.
He said the reason he chose the Navy was because he knew if he waited for them to draft him, they would have put him in the Army, and he had seen a movie with sailors in it, and he knew the girls liked the sailors’ uniforms better than the Army’s uniform. Camp Perry, Va. was where he had his basic training — way out by itself in the woods, he said. Then he went to fire-fighting school in Rhode Island. “Now here’s where you need to know something important about me,” he said. “When I enlisted, I weighed 115 lbs. I had heard it was pretty rough, and I was worried I might not be able to do what the big guys could do, but I had been raised out in the sticks, and I did better than a lot of those big guys did,” he laughed. But they weren’t kidding about it being rough. During fire training, they would set a building on fire, and then we would go in with a hose. We would take turns being in the front holding the nozzle. Well, I was a little fella remember. When I turned that big ol’ hose on, it raised me right up off the ground! I couldn’t control it! Now, that was funny.” They didn’t have clothes or shoes big enough to fit him so he had to go into town to try to find some shoes that looked at least a little bit like what the other guys wore, and the clothes they gave him were pretty big. “They didn’t care what we looked like,” he said.
In the service, he did the same thing with his pay that he had done with his other job. He had every other check sent home to his parents. “I read a Bible verse once,” he said. “Ephesians 6:2 and 3 say Honor your father and mother that it may go well with you and that you may live long and prosper. I always believed God blessed me for honoring my parents. I took care of them until they passed away, and even though I never went to college, I never lacked for anything.”
In Norfolk, Va., they commissioned a new ship, a heavy cruiser, the Pittsburgh CA 72. His job was to put 25-lb. bags of powder into the guns so they could fire the bullets that weighed about 250 pounds. Those were handled with a machine, he explained. He was in the powder room the first time they saw combat. They got a report that two suicide planes were coming in. The Navy was afraid of suicide planes because they would just dive on your ship. “We shot those planes down,” he said. “I told my buddy, I feel pretty good. I always wondered how I would handle it, but it didn’t phase me. Then I looked down and my hands were shaking all over the place and he laughed at me.”
He was with a carrier task force. “We had I don’t know how many ships,” he said, “maybe 1,000.” The carriers were in the center as they traveled. The battle wagons were next, all moving together. Then came the heavy cruisers, then the light cruisers. They were all protecting the carriers in the middle because that’s what the Japanese were after. “One went right over our bow,” he said. “It hit the carrier next to us, and there were bodies everywhere.” They tied onto that carrier, and the Japanese kept coming. The carrier was burning, and there were men in the water, some of them alive. They picked up 15 men out of the water and brought them aboard their ship, but four of them died during the night, and the following morning were buried at sea. “I had never seen that before,” he said. “I thought, I sure don’t want to be buried at sea.”
They were tied onto the carrier, and they started pulling it going 3 knots. That was the fastest they could go. They were a sitting duck for the planes coming in. They took turns standing there with an ax so they could chop the rope when a plane was coming so they could maneuver, then after they shot the plane down, they would tie back up again. They were creeping along and it felt like they would never get out of there, he said. After the war, a senator put in for a citation for that because it was the first time anything like that had ever been attempted. It was very risky, he said.
Near Okinawa, they ran all night from a typhoon, but by daylight, it caught up to them. There were 70-knot winds and the waves broke 109 feet off the water. They fought the storm for seven hours, and 104 feet broke off of the front of the ship, but not one man was lost. The break occurred right next to where he was, and they announced that no one was to open a hatch. “Well, I knew I wanted to get to the back of the ship,” he said. “But only the officers were allowed to open those hatches. Well, remember, I was a little guy, so I waited until I saw an officer open a hatch, and I darted through the hatch between his legs. I worked my way almost all the way to the back of the ship,” he laughed.
After the war, he had trouble with his back because of some of the jobs they had him do. Because of his small size, they put him to work stooped over in tiny spaces hour after hour, and it took a toll on him. His medical records were lost on that ship during the typhoon, and that complicated things. He tried working in the mines for a little while but found that was just too hard on his back. He ended up working a variety of jobs in the steel mill in Indiana. He had three children, two sons — Steve and Timothy who have since passed away and a daughter Deborah who lives in Kouts, Ind. Mr. Sutherland and his wife Dawn live in Okeechobee and he enjoys playing bluegrass music at Seminole Cove and the Senior Center and Okeechobee Health Care Center every week.