Troops who trained during World War II in the California desert called it “the place God forgot.”
It’s also the place where a dog tag lay forgotten for decades after a local soldier, Mervin White, who quit school and lied about his age to enlist at 15, lost the ID before shipping out to the Philippines.
Because of the efforts of many, the military identification was returned 75 years later to the survivors of White, who died in 1996, as Washington County honored him Thursday.
“Thank you, thank you, I cannot thank you enough for this recognition,” said Mervin White’s daughter, Karen White Neal of Fort Washington, Md., as a phalanx of veterans gathered in the Courthouse Square office building in deference to his memory.
White’s family moved to Washington when he was a child, and the name of his mother, Clara Howard, and the address 151 N. Lincoln St. were some of the keys that led to tracking down his family, as did a story last October in the Observer-Reporter.
County Commissioner Larry Maggi read a list of White’s decorations that included a good conduct ribbon; World War II victory medal; American Defense ribbon; American Theater campaign ribbon; Asiatic-Pacific Theater ribbon with three bronze service stars and a “V” for valor in combat; and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one bronze service star.
The information confirmed what Neal remembered stumbling across many years ago. She said in an interview in December that her father rarely talked about his time in the Army, and to have questioned him about his ribbons and medals would’ve have shown she had delved into recesses that he chose to avoid.
“I was going through things I wasn’t supposed to go through, so I couldn’t say, ‘Daddy, what is this you’ve never talked about?’” Neal told a packed meeting room. “That is very true of our veterans. They don’t talk about their experiences. They do magnificent things on our behalf and make incredible sacrifices, but they don’t share with the rest of us what they’ve gone through. It matters to all of us that you made the contributions and sacrifices.”
Mervin White returned to Washington after his honorable discharge in 1945, and in 1948 married a local resident who had just graduated from high school. After a few years, he was employed at a Chrysler Corp. foundry in Indianapolis, then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a rigger for the federal government.
“For me, it was exciting,” Neal said after the commissioners meeting. “It was a walk back in time, and it brought my father back to life, so it’s unbelievably special. It really, really is.
“My father would’ve been uncomfortable with all of the recognition. He was a humble, blue-collar worker who just took care of his own life and his family. He dropped out of school, but he was extremely well-read. It was important to him that his child have a good education.”
Neal recently retired after 34 years as an teacher, high school administrator and supervisor.
Attending the presentation with her Thursday were her husband, Dr. William Neal, and her uncle, Floyd White, 94, of Washington, D.C., who was already in the Army when his younger brother signed up.
Mervin and Floyd were two of five White brothers who served overseas during World War II.
John Campbell Sr., a member of Washington School Board and a military veteran, thanked White’s family for their service, contributions and sacrifices.
After the Whites’ honorable discharges, they returned to a segregated society.
“How things have changed,” Maggi said, noting that the presentation occurred in conjunction with Black History Month and was the culmination of an inquiry from Frank Lapovcic of Westminster, Colo., a U.S. Navy veteran whose service buddy found Mervin White’s military ID while “rummaging through” the Desert Training Center, also known as the California-Arizona Maneuver Area in the Mojave and Sonoran desserts. The friend knew Lapovcic grew up in South Park Township, which juts up against the Washington County line, and Lapovcic had visited Washington as a youth.
“I’ve got some of their family history,” Lapovcic said in a phone interview last month about why he went to the trouble to email Washington County about Mervin White, an effort has now come full circle.
Neal had just received Lapovcic’s email address, and she intends to tell him, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you on behalf of every member of my family, because I can’t wait to share this with my son and my daughter, and I have two grandchildren who at this point wouldn’t have a real appreciation, but as they get older, I hope they will.”