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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / World War II veteran Jim Perrine at his home on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 in Soddy-Daisy. Perrine served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

Jim Perrine spent several years in the Merchant Marine during World War II, hauling critical supplies across treacherous oceans to troops fighting in Europe. The ships came under regular submarine attack, and Perrine once saw a vessel in his convoy blown "sky high" by an enemy torpedo.

But Perrine, who is 95 and lives in Soddy-Daisy, isn't much interested in telling war stories. With a broad smile, he sums up his service this way: "They owe me absolutely nothing. I learned a trade that made me a lot of money, I was not hurt, I never missed a meal."

Born in rural Pulaski County, Arkansas, in 1925, and the youngest of four children, Perrine grew up in desperate poverty after his parents were wiped out in the Great Depression.

"My mother and father were well off, but the bank failed and took every penny they had," he said. "They were destitute."

The Perrines once had 200 acres, but sold their house and 40 acres to survive. They farmed the remaining 160 acres, but "we were about to starve to death," Perrine said. His first job as a child was chopping cotton for 75 cents a day. Field hands made $15 a month.

"Times were very, very hard," Perrine said. "I was in the third grade before I ever saw a dollar bill."

So when the military started building an ordnance plant near his house, Perrine jumped at the chance for steady, well-paid work. He was just 16, and lied about his age when he applied to make the cut.

"I was in shop class, and my brother-in-law came in and said, 'They're calling your name down at the plant,'" Perrine said. "I dropped out of school; I never did go back after that."

While he was working at the plant, he met an electrician who ran a plant in Texas City, Texas, who invited him to come work there. He moved on his own to Texas, where he met another man who had been in the Merchant Marine.

"He told me all about it and how to sign up." Perrine said. "He told me to go to the Coast Guard office, and I did, but they wouldn't take me because I wasn't 18. They took my application and told me they'd call me when I turned 18."

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / World War II veteran Jim Perrine outside his home on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Soddy Daisy. Perrine served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

In the meantime, he went to work for an electrical company in North Little Rock. When he turned 18, he got the call. It was 1943, and Perrine knew he'd be bound for war. In November, he completed his training at Sheepshead Bay, New York, and was assigned to a cargo ship.

The Merchant Marine navigated war, but didn't engage in combat, Perrine said. The missions were all about supplies and getting them to the troops who needed them.

"I had no combat training," he said. "I was in the engine room as a fireman water tender on one trip, as an oiler on another."

One night, in the spring of 1944, he was on the deck during a storm, and waves were buffeting the craft. He looked out and spotted a periscope, 5 or 6 feet of it, exposed by the swirling water.

"We had submarine attacks quite often coming and going," he said.

On another occasion, he saw a ship traveling in his convoy blown apart by an attack.

He spent late 1943 to spring 1946 moving supplies for the Merchant Marine. "I wasn't home a month during that period," he said.

Once his service was over, he married Rose Darlene on April 9, 1946. They'd met as teenagers in Arkansas. She worked the soda fountain at a drugstore in a neighboring town, and Perrine developed a habit of going there regularly to see her.

Once he left Arkansas, "I wrote a letter once in a while, and she wrote a letter once in a while," and they spent the last year of his military service engaged. The first of their four sons was born in 1948.

BIO

Name: Jim Perrine

Age: 95

Branch of military: U.S. Merchant Marine

Years of service: 1943-1946

(Read about other local veterans in our "21-Veteran Salute" series here)

After the war, Perrine tried to go back to high school, but the principal told him high school was no place for a grown man freshly back from service. Instead, he took the GED, passing the test easily.

"I had been through Officer Candidate School, so I knew I could do it," he said. I used to read a lot."

Perrine ended up at Memphis State, taking classes at night while he worked full time for Arkansas Power and Light, eventually earning an associate's degree in mechanical engineering. He switched employers in 1952, jumping to DuPont, where he spent nearly 30 years. He quit in 1982, when he was 56, and went into business as an independent consultant.

"I made a lot, and I traveled a lot," he said. "We traveled in every state in the union but two — Alaska and Maine."

Perrine also flew planes for fun, quitting when he was 87 and starting to worry about problems he was having with his balance.

"I flew planes for 60 years," he said. "I used them in my business when I was doing consulting."

In 2001, Perrine and his wife packed up their place in Jacksonville, Arkansas, and moved to Chattanooga to be near their third son, who lives in Red Bank. In November 2014, Perrine and his wife lost their youngest, who was living in Phoenix and was about to turn 60, in a cycling accident. A month later, Rose Darlene Perrine passed away.

"We were married 68 years," Perrine said. "That was hard."

Perrine lives alone now, and has caretakers — they prefer to call themselves his friends — who trade shifts keeping him company. He still drives short distances in the daytime, still rides his lawnmower, and sometimes gets the golf cart out to visit his neighbors and nearby stores.

He enjoys working on cars, and his church is half a mile from his house. Every Friday, he has supper with his son and daughter-in-law.

"What more could you want?" Perrine said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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