Jim Whitfield’s life has never been the same since being introduced to patriotism in Warrensburg, Mo., as a young lad.

Jim Whitfield’s life has never been the same since being introduced to patriotism in Warrensburg, Mo., as a young lad.

This 86-year-old Independence veteran has literally devoted his life to fellow veterans and to the service of his country since joining the Navy in World War II.

And today he’s still serving veterans and their families in the Missouri National Guard Office of Missouri Military Funeral Honors as its western area supervisor.

From his office in the National Guard Armory in Kansas City, Jim is responsible for providing funeral honor guards for veterans in 50 western Missouri counties – if requested by the family.

Honor guard volunteers are active members of the Guard. They are assigned to one of five honor guard teams in the western area: Kansas City, St. Joseph, Warrensburg, Joplin and Springfield.

“We work very closely with the American Legion, the VFW and a couple of other organizations,” he says, explaining his office certifies members of veteran organizations so they can execute the elements of firing volleys, playing or providing taps and folding and presenting the flag to families of the deceased.

“It is very important that we have them because we could not do the missions we do without them,” says Jim, who has been with the program since it became a state law on July 1, 1999.

“I have been with it from the beginning,” he declares. First, he served as coordinator and then moved into the supervisor role five years ago.

As supervisor, Jim receives personal satisfaction, he says, knowing families also receive satisfaction from the program, which is part of the Office of the Adjutant General of the Missouri National Guard.

“It was set up so that we could work with the Guard to make this program possible,” he explains.

Jim has World War I veterans to thank for instilling in him the respect of Old Glory and the honor of service. He often listened as the veterans swapped war stories. He also observed them demonstrate their patriotism in Warrensburg.

As 16-year-old Jim sat on the curb in front of his father’s restaurant on Dec. 7, 1941. His patriotism soared when a nearby radio announced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Without a second thought, the high school junior knew what he had to do.

And he did. Two weeks  after receiving his high school diploma, the 17-year-old joined the Navy – with his parents’ consent – and was assigned to the USS Gen. George O. Squier, a new troop-carrying ship out of Treasure Island, Calif.

Jim says his patriotic parents signed the enlistment papers, knowing their son wanted to be in the Navy, knowing he would be drafted when he turned 18 and end up in another branch of the service.

Jim never regretted joining the Navy.

“The Navy was really good to me,” he says. “I hope I was just as good to it.”

He spent 33 months aboard the troop-carrier without receiving a scratch and became a “plank owner” of the Squier, which was involved in both theaters of war.

“(The Squier) was in the South Pacific a short time, then we got shifted to the Atlantic ... and we were in the second or third wave of reinforcements on the D-Day invasion of Normandy,” he recalls.

As a navigation quartermaster, Jim corrected charts for navigational purposes, kept the ship’s log and stood watch on deck with the Officer of the Day. But those weren’t his only duties.

“My general quarters station was that of helmsman of the ship,” Jim says, noting he followed the captain’s orders on where to steer the ship.

As part of a convoy, the Squier safely zigzagged across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid the menacing German subs.

Though his ship was never attacked, Jim knew the U-boats were there. At night, “the ship would shake because our escorts were dropping depth charges” on subs they could hear.

Jim also knows where he was on V-J Day.

When the war ended, “Our ship was in the Caribbean one day out of the Panama Canal headed for Japan ... We were moving all our troops out of Europe directly to Japan for a heavy invasion.”

The Squier, though, never made it to the Canal. With the unconditional surrender of Japan, the ship was ordered to sail for New York.

If nothing else, Jim says the three years, seven months and nine days he spent in the Navy “permanently ingrained my patriotism.”

Upon his discharge, Jim immediately joined American Legion Post 131 in Warrensburg and became involved in patriotic activities, such as meeting trains bringing home the remains of area veterans killed overseas.

The train from Kansas City arrived in Warrensburg at 1:10 a.m., followed by the train from St. Louis at 5 a.m., recalls Jim, who was vice commander of the Legion post.

Regardless of the time, Jim was faithful meeting each train regardless of the weather or circumstances.

“I just felt like it was my duty,” Jim says, recalling he met more than 50 trains carrying the remains of area veterans over a two-year period.

“I made them all. I never missed a train,” he recalls proudly. “I felt extremely good about that.”

Not only did Jim stand at attention and render a salute as a flag-draped casket was moved from the train to the hearse, he also attended some of the services. And on one occasion, he presented the flag on a casket to a family member he didn’t know.

And, yes, Jim shed a tear or two, he admits, especially for those he personally knew.

After the war, as Jim studied and observed veteran activities and what they stood for, he decided “That’s for me.”

His patriotism led him to the Legion national headquarters in Indianapolis, where he worked for 21 years. It also resulted in him serving 18 years as the Legion’s legislative chairman for Missouri.

He also was the Legion’s state adjutant for three years, as well as post and district commander. He coordinated veteran enrollments at Central Missouri State College during his senior year.

Jim is proud he has never missed an American Legion state convention since his first one in 1947. But that’s not his greatest achievement. Jim believes that was his efforts in establishing the Missouri Veterans Commission in 1989 and his appointment as its first chairman.

Saying he might be one of the state’s oldest workers, Jim calls his life of service “a fascinating one” and says he has enjoyed the opportunities afforded him to be of service to the veterans.