My draft number was coming up during my second season at Detroit, so I tried to get into the Marines, but they flunked me on the color-blind test when they discovered I was slightly green-blind. I couldn't fly because of my eyes, so I had decided to enlist or get drafted when I discovered that I could get a waiver on my eye test from naval intelligence. So I signed up with them. Just after our last game of the season I was driving home to Colorado, and as I was driving along the Outer Drive in Chicago I turned on the radio and heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was going to stop and see some friends in Chicago, but when I heard the news I just kept right on driving through to home.
Early in the war I was the intelligence officer with a PT boat squadron based in the Solomons, and it was my job to brief the fellows on the intelligence side of their missions before they went out and interview them when they came back and coordinate their missions with the flyers. It was out there that I met Kennedy again, and one of the jobs I had to do was write the report on the accident when his boat was sunk. I remember riding on his boat a couple of times—that is, the boat they gave him after he had lost his first boat. As a result of these encounters with the President, I began to get a strong feeling about what kind of fellow he was. He proved himself to be very intelligent in the way he ran his boat, as well as cool and courageous under fire. I concluded he was a pretty solid sort of person.
Although few of the wartime histories or memoirs record the fact and Justice White would be the last person to even admit it, the truth remains that it was his perspicacity and quick thinking and that of a fellow intelligence officer on Admiral Mitscher's staff that saved Admiral William F. Halsey from a most humiliating experience during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. After the first day of this crucial naval engagement, Halsey took the Third Fleet and its fast carriers on a chase to the north in search of a Japanese carrier force, leaving General MacArthur's invasion troops exposed to a pincers attack by two other Japanese task forces. Throughout the night and well into the next morning, the U.S. planes searched in vain for the Japanese carriers, which, having decoyed Halsey northward, had disappeared from sight. Of all the officers on both Halsey's and Mitscher's staffs, only White and his immediate superior, Lieut. Cheston, kept insisting that the Japanese might be retreating northeast, instead of northwest where the futile search was concentrated. At the last moment, when the whole foray seemed doomed to failure. White and his colleague persuaded one of their senior officers to detach a few fighter planes for a search to the northeast. They found the Japanese carriers only 100 miles away, and Mitscher's dive bombers and torpedo planes sank four of them. Halsey thus survived his unfortunate decision without complete futility.
It's hard to say that you had a good time in the war [White reminisced], but, on the other hand, you couldn't say it was dull or purposeless. It's an experience I'd just as soon not have had but, having had it, I have to admit it was a very great experience. Many of the people I dealt with were extremely able, and I was terribly impressed with a lot of them—particularly Admiral Mitscher and Arleigh Burke and several of the officers I worked with on Mitscher's staff—especially Cheston [he was now a lieutenant commander] and Lieut. Commander Joseph Eggert of New York. Since then they have become two of my very best friends in the world.
I was fortunate in serving in the Navy, particularly on the carriers, but it was those guys in the foxholes and those guys in the airplanes who had to do the dirty work. Nonetheless, there were times in the war when you felt that you, too, were making some kind of a contribution.
When the war was over I went back to Yale and finished my last year of law school and got married [to Marion Stearns of Denver]. That spring a friend of mine named Carl Price, who was going to be a law clerk for Chief Justice Vinson, suggested to me that I, too, apply for a job as one of his clerks. Price got me an interview in Washington, and I got the job, but I still had some time to finish up in New Haven. So I spent the next few months commuting, half a week here in Washington and half a week there.
Before the war I was reasonably sure I wanted to practice law in New York, because that's where so much of the really significant law is handled. By the time the war was over I wasn't so excited with the idea of living in the East. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come down here and work for Chief Justice Vinson; I wanted a year to think things over.
I think one of the reasons I wanted to go back to Denver was that it was growing so rapidly after the war. It seemed like an exciting thing to begin your career in a town that was growing that fast. In a small law firm you would be in a position to come to grips with a great variety of significant problems that you might never meet in a larger eastern firm. Also, living in a pleasant environment like Denver seemed a little more important to me than it had a few years earlier. I must have been getting old and soft.
I went to work in a small law firm, now called Lewis, Grant and Davis. It had a typical practice for that kind of town—just the general practice of the law—and it gave you a wide variety of experience. By the time I left we had about 20 lawyers in the firm, and I'm sure it's still growing. I did considerable trial work and became quite involved in antitrust and tax law. I also took part in community activity and got into politics.
I was in local politics from the first moment I arrived in Denver. I served as a precinct committeeman every year for several years, and I was a ward captain after that. Every year after 1947 I worked on someone's committee. It might have been a judge, a candidate for the state legislature or someone running for local office. I worked at it, and I really got to know those people. The only reason I had to give it up was that Quigg Newton, my law partner, who is now president of the University of Colorado, got in a heated primary campaign with John Carroll, later a Senator from Colorado, who was a friend of mine and whom I'd supported. I didn't feel it was right for me to get involved in that campaign in view of my personal relationships with these men.