May 9, 2002 – Under bright noon skies over a choppy aquamarine sea, a brisk wind whipped the U.S. and V.I. flags about as four National Guard officers stood at attention Thursday in a ceremony to dedicate a monument on Veterans Drive to a 20-year-old who gave his life to his country 23 years ago.
Seaman Emil White gave his heart to St. Thomas. Born in New York, he grew up on the island, where he graduated from Sts. Peter and Paul High School and immediately launched a radio career at WVWI and formed WW Productions, a DJ service.
The young entrepreneur was on his way to becoming what more than one friend said Thursday would have been an incredible career. "Today, he would be the leading entertainment personality on the island," said WSTA radio and WSVI television newsman Lee Carle, who worked with White at WW Productions.
"We would do concerts, and he was always dressed to the nines, always in his fedora hat," Carle said. "He had an incredible, almost magnetic personality."
Family, friends, Port Authority officials and old WW colleagues gathered under a sparkling white tent to pay tribute to the young man.
Gordon Finch, VIPA executive director, said he had not known of White until the young man's father, Alfred White Sr., approached him one day as he was taking his daily walk. "Mr. White told me the monument on the waterfront the Navy had provided some years ago was in a terrible state of disrepair from the hurricanes," Finch related. "He asked if I could fix it. But when I saw his tears, I went down to the waterfront to find out what he was talking about. The memorial was in a sad state."
Finch said he asked White for a photograph of his son and hung it in his office to "remind me of my commitment." Finch said he sketched a design for a new memorial and gave it to Dale Gregory, his engineering manager.
That was about a year ago. Plans for the new monument suffered some setbacks, one when the Water and Power Authority tore up a good portion of the site to repair water lines, others due to damage by vandals. Today the handsome memorial, artfully set in stone masonry, looks out over two flower beds filled with fuchsia bougainvillea and sea grapes. It faces the road, "so people can see it," Finch said. By tradition, he said, it should face the sea. The earlier version did, "but nobody knew what it was," he said.
White was killed in Puerto Rico on Dec. 3, 1979, in a terrorist attack on a U.S. Navy bus. The attackers belonged to the FALN pro-independence terrorist group. They shot at the bus from a moving vehicle. White was killed while trying to shield a fellow crew member from bullets.
His sister Jenel and brother Alfred Jr. gave testaments to their late brother at the dedication ceremony Thursday, but it was the senior White who got everybody's attention. "My children have said all I could say," he said, "but I want to take this opportunity to tell you about something that has been bugging me."
White said the Navy closed the case in 1993 but never notified him, and he learned about it in a San Juan Star newspaper article. He said he then contacted Delegate Donna Christian Christensen and asked to meet with her and then-president Bill Clinton about an investigation into the matter.
"She told me that would be impossible," White said, "and she never followed up. Now they [Puerto Rican protesters] are saying they want the Navy out of Vieques. My son died for that. The Navy should stay there."
Justin Harrigan, the territory's assistant director of Veterans Affairs, who was an impromptu speaker, told White he would help him investigate the circumstances of his son's case.
White, clearly taken back to the day his son was killed, slowly unveiled the monument, draped in heavy purple velvet. He thanked Finch, who stood nearby, and turned away from the crowd, overcome by emotion. Later, clutching the purple drape, he said Navy officials have never explained to him what his son was doing on that bus. "And they have never caught the people who killed him," he said shaking his head.
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