Though the Korean War is often referred to as “The Forgotten War”, Thomas White remembers his journey well—from receiving his draft paperwork to his changing tasks while at sea. On Sunday, October 21st, a group of 30 friends and neighbors gathered at Mallory Town Hall to witness Senator Chris Murphy, who had come to Sherman specially for this occasion, present Mr. White with South Korea’s Ambassador for Peace medal for his service.
When Mr. White first received his classification questionnaire for the Army in the fall of 1950, he noticed a discrepancy and sent it back with a note stating he wouldn’t sign until all information was correct; he then used the time to take a bus out to California and enlisted in the Naval Reserve.
He was assigned as a Seaman Apprentice to the USS Iowa, the first of four Iowa-class battleships of World War II; she was followed by the USS New Jersey, USS Missouri, and USS Wisconsin. The Iowa-class was characterized by the 9 x 16” 50-caliber Mark 7 main guns—three guns fitted to one turret. The Iowa, which first set out from the Chesapeake Bay in 1942, has three turrets. She was decommissioned in 1949 but was called back to sea in 1951 for the Korean War. Mr. White chuckled when he spoke of a day during which the turret turned while he attempted to reload one of the guns. “I dropped a warhead in the gun turret — a dangerous mistake —and for this they weren’t too happy with me, so they sent me below to the powder magazine., which was even more dangerous.” He worked as a yeoman—a clerk—and then became the ship’s bugler, coming full circle from playing alto and tenor saxophone in high school.
The Ambassador for Peace medal is awarded by the South Korean government in appreciation for all Americans who served in the war; though, when thanked for his service during his interview, Mr. White smiled and humbly responded, “I’m no hero.” Nancy, Mr. White’s wife, knew of his service record. She found out about the award to American veterans and said “Well I’ve got one!” And recommended Tom to Senator Murphy.
Originally, the medal was presented as a memento for the veterans who traveled back to South Korea via the Revisit Program, started in 1975 by the Korea Veterans Association (KVA) and is now hosted by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (MPVA). Protocol was quickly changed so those unable to travel may still receive the honor.
Travel, thankfully, is still available for both the Whites. “We’re very curious and will go anywhere,” Mrs. White said.
Post-Korea Mr. White was fortunate to be part of the first tourist trip into the U.S.S.R., was invited to Moscow and taken to the conservatory where his father studied violin, and then spent many years working in film and television in Western New York and New York City. He worked for documentary film companies, one that sent him to Vietnam to report on soldiers for local television in Western New York. He also spent time as a film editor for CBS’ 60 minutes, and eventually traveled to Paris with a friend from Spain who wanted to film the renowned mime Marcel Marcea.
After the war ended a door was unlocked for Mr. White to follow his creative passions full speed ahead. Even during war-time Mr. White saw beauty wherever he went, calling his visits to Japan “magical.” It’s no surprise that having such an outlook would lead him to write, direct, and produce “Who’s Crazy?”, a film released in the mid-1960s which has been digitally restored and re-released last year where it opened the spring festival of The Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The film has become the stamp for Mr. White’s legacy. Featuring the talents of jazz legend Ornette Coleman, Marianne Faithfull, and The Living Theatre, “Who’s Crazy?” is a rediscovered gem that has toured a multitude of film festivals around the world. Famous painter Salvador Dalí endorsed the film, Beatles film director, Richard Lester, praised the music as “the best jazz film score he had ever experienced”, and Mr. White was content to let The Living Theatre actors improvise. “They were very good with coming up with their own sounds,” Mr. White said. Mrs. White added that the actors “were very imaginative and out there for people who were too square for them…They were out to play.
Luckily, life is never “too square” for the Whites. The vibrant couple spent 20 years breeding horses, but today, they enjoy each day to the fullest along with their two dogs Abigail and Wellington, looking for the next adventure.
By Anne-Marie DiDomenico