Navy ship brings back memories to 91-year-old veteran

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FORT LAUDERDALE — Every sailor has a story.

But Jack Wittenborn, a Navy guy and former Marine turned charter boat captain, has multitudes, all colored by a sharp wit and vivid memories of his 91 years, many of whom spent here in Fort Lauderdale.

It’s been 71 years since the Philadelphia-born Wittenborn stomped the gangplank and lined the rails for the commissioning of the USS Everglades, a California-built destroyer built at the end of World War II for the United States Navy.

Wittenborn hasn’t remembered those Navy years in a while, but the recent arrival of the brand new USS Fort Lauderdale has sparked a tsunami of memories.

“I feel like bonding with this new ship,” Wittenborn said with youthful excitement. “It’s simplified compared to the USS Everglades. It was a work ship. We repaired destroyers.

Fort Lauderdale’s namesake vessel is 684 feet in length and was built for amphibious assault, special operations, and expeditionary warfare missions. Piloted by 400 sailors, the ship will be commissioned Saturday morning in Port Everglades during an invitation-only ceremony.

Wittenborn didn’t get an invite, but says he’s happy to read all about it.

“I’m excited but I’m tired,” he said. “I would like to read about it and get a photo of the ship to put in my treasure chest.”

Wittenborn says he feels a kinship with this new ship named after the city he learned to call home a long time ago, and where he became a bit of a local legend.

He found the love of his life here, a red-haired beauty with green eyes.

“I fell in love with her like a ton of bricks,” he told a reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, pointing to the many photos of his late wife placed throughout his home in Poinsettia Heights. “She was a doll. A dream. I was born under a lucky star to find a woman like me.

The two met in Searstown. She worked at the candy counter and he was hired to walk around the store handing out chocolates.

They married in 1958 and for 61 years had a sweet life together. They raised two sons, their own, John Jr., and Greg, a child Joan (pronounced Joanne) had from a previous relationship. Their son John Jr. died in May 2019, a few years after his older brother.

Then, in December 2019, Wittenborn lost his redhead sweetheart. She was 92 years old.

“Looks like it was yesterday,” Wittenborn said, his voice calm. “In another way, it looks like she’s a ghost.”

Prior to meeting his wife, Wittenborn served in the Navy and Marine Corps Reserves.

“I joined the Navy in 1950,” he said. “I was in four years. Active duty but no combat.

Bootcamp was no picnic, he recalls.

“The guy in charge was shouting, ‘You’re not sailors. You are not civilians. You are s—birds until I’m done with you.

After serving on the USS Everglades, Wittenborn was reassigned to the USS Robinson.

“She was a destroyer,” he said. “She had sailed around the world, sat off the coast of Korea and caught fire. The guys didn’t like me because I was new to the boat. I was on a big old big repair ship. I didn’t get shot, I didn’t go around the world. It took me a long time to make friends. »

Eventually he conquered them and let the past pass.

“There’s no point in holding grudges,” he said with the wisdom of a man who’s been around for nine decades. “You never take revenge. You take what you get.

After leaving the Navy, Wittenborn made a career out of working as a charter boat captain at the Bahia Mar Marina.

One day at the docks in late 1973, he found a rolled up wad of cash bound with a rubber band. The package was $2,500, or $15,000 in today’s dollars. Against the advice of his dock mates – who said they would keep the money for themselves – he handed it over to the police.

It turns out that a family in Oklahoma had lost the money and needed to return home, but not before reporting the loss to the police. The department wired them the money on New Year’s Day.

The story made headlines, with the headline “Honest Jack Gives Back His Bankroll: Vacationers Get $2,500 Back”.

The nickname stuck.

“The man was so happy he was crying,” Wittenborn told a Fort Lauderdale News reporter. “Apparently they had given up hope of seeing that bankroll again.”

Shortly after the story broke, Wittenborn received a call from the mayor of Wilton Manors, where he was living at the time.

“He said, ‘We’re going to give you a day if you come to City Hall tomorrow night,’ Wittenborn said. “Honest Jack Wittenborn’s day.”

Wittenborn says he moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1956 shortly after leaving the Navy.

“I fell in love with Fort Lauderdale,” he said.

He remembers being on the quarterdeck of the USS Everglades as it arrived in port.

“One of the guys said, ‘Wittenborn is Fort Lauderdale. The fishing is great. The girls are pretty. And the drinks are excellent.

Quite true, says Wittenborn.

Longtime friend John Millroy met “Captain Jack” at age 16 when his family moved from New Jersey in 1970.

Wittenborn was not at all like other boat captains, Millroy said.

“They were like the big shots on the docks,” Millroy said. “Most boat captains wouldn’t tell you the time of day. But Jack wasn’t like that. He would talk to anyone, including me.

Millroy, a retired Fort Lauderdale firefighter who has since moved to Hobe Sound, remembers all the criticism Wittenborn took about his nickname “Honest Jack.”

“He would have just rolled his eyes,” Millroy said.

These days, Wittenborn wears the name with pride.

“I’ve had several over the years,” he said. “Lucky Jack. Captain Jack. Honest Jack. And now there’s only Old Man Jack.

Life on the water was beautiful, as Wittenborn remembers.

Memories of those days hang in his bedroom in the form of black and white photos and a colorful painting of one of his former charter boats, Hi Hopes.

“It was painted by a guy from Bahia Mar, the local drunk,” Wittenborn said.

A nearby photo shows Wittenborn standing on the boat alongside three men and a 495-pound bluefin tuna caught on a fishing trip to Bimini.

These days, Wittenborn takes on day-to-day life.

“I used to weigh 155, when I was Mr. Cool on the good ship Hi Hopes,” he said. “Now I’m at 118. That’s what happens when you get sick and go to the hospital.”

A few weeks ago, Millroy and his wife stopped by to visit their old friend and were alarmed to find him unconscious.

They called 911 right away.

Wittenborn is now out of hospital and doing much better, they say, with a carer who comes in every day to check on him.

The couple come every week to bring her groceries and reminisce about the old days.

“Jack is a window into the world of the 50s and 60s,” Millroy said. “He’s got a lot of stories. And when those guys are gone, they’re gone.

Wittenborn says he stayed up until 2 a.m. one night this week looking for old photos from his Navy days to show the Sun Sentinel. He tried his best to find his old Navy cap, without success.

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“I looked high and low,” he said. “I didn’t find that fucking thing.”

He did, however, come across an old photo of young Jack in uniform.

“I had hair back then,” he said, pointing to the photo. “Does wonders.”

He took another sip of coffee from his favorite cup, a present from a friend for his last birthday. The mug pays homage to his many nicknames: “JACK. The man. The myth. The legend.”

The caption says he feels more like “Lucky Jack” after the life he’s led.

“I don’t always make the right decisions,” he said. “But I do the lucky ones. I am here. I live in the past, but I always love the future. And I don’t even know if I’ll be there in three months.

Susannah Bryan can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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