MOUNT DIABLO -- Jesse White saw clouds forming on that winter day in 1928, but he couldn't have imagined the danger ahead while delivering his valuable truckload to the mountaintop.

Standard Oil had assigned White, a 25-year-old truck driver, to deliver a heavy new beacon from Richmond to the Mount Diablo summit, where its beam would shine to help oil tankers and aircraft navigate the surrounding area.

The beacon is still there 84 years later, now lighting up one night a year, Dec. 7, to honor victims of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

But long before the Pearl Harbor attack, in 1928, White made a ride to remember in a violent rainstorm and blizzard in a 1920 Mack AC chain drive dump truck with no window or doors, as was the design of open-cab, heavy work trucks of the era.

A photo taken in 1940 of Hugh White, left, and his father, Jesse White, now deceased, who drove the navigational beacon to the top of Mount Diablo during a
A photo taken in 1940 of Hugh White, left, and his father, Jesse White, now deceased, who drove the navigational beacon to the top of Mount Diablo during a snowstorm in 1928. The beacon is lit every Dec. 7 in memory of Pearl Harbor victims. (Contributed by Hugh White)

The truck had a top speed of about 8 mph, said White's son, Hugh White, a San Pablo resident.

"As he started up the mountain, the storm hit with full force," said Hugh White, who years later heard the tale from his father. "He was hit full blast by the blinding rain and 50-mph gusts."

Jesse White put on a sheepskin coat and clung tightly to the steering wheel. Six hours after leaving Richmond, the truck reached the mountaintop, renowned for its high winds and harsh weather.

Mt. Diablo State Park rangers helped him unload the beacon. Then things got worse. It started snowing. Winds howled stronger.

Rangers urged White to spend the night and wait out the blizzard.

He declined.


Advertisement

"He told them his wife was having a difficult pregnancy and he had to go back to Richmond to be with her," Hugh White said.

Jesse White started back down the 3,849-foot-tall mountain. Unable to see far, he put on goggles and steered by sticking his head out of the truck to see the edge of the road.

Partway down the mountain, White saw a Cadillac blow off the road and plunge down an embankment.

White stopped. He climbed down a steep, snowy slope and pulled a severely injured, semiconscious man from the wreckage. He dragged the man uphill to the road, covered him with his sheepskin coat and drove on until finding a ranger, who summoned emergency help.

"Jesse made it home without further incident, arriving at the Standard Oil corporation yard 11-and-a-half hours after his morning departure," Hugh White wrote in an email.

Weeks later, Jesse White received a letter from the crash victim thanking him for saving his life. He had several broken bones and cuts.

Two months after the trip, White's wife, Carol Estella White, delivered a month-overdue baby boy, Hugh White, who described his father's adventure in a series of emails and phone calls.

Jesse White went on to become a head rigger foreman at the Standard Oil refinery in Richmond, later renamed Chevron. He died in 1992 at age 89.

The beacon was utilized as a navigation guide until the Pearl Harbor attack spurred the military to shut it off out of fear that Japanese warplanes would use it to find and attack the Bay Area.

Since 1964, the beacon has been lighted once a year to remember the more than 2,300 U.S. military members killed in the attack.

Hugh White plans to attend the Pearl Harbor ceremony at 3:45 p.m. Friday at the summit, followed by the annual lighting of the beacon his father delivered 84 years ago.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.

Beacon lighting

The annual Pearl Harbor memorial ceremony and lighting of the Mount Diablo beacon begin at 3:45 p.m. Friday at the Mt. Diablo State Park summit building.
Admission is free to the ceremony but a $10-per-car entrance fee is charged by the park. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association sponsors the event.
For details on the ceremony or a fundraising drive to restore the beacon, call Save Mount Diablo at 925-947-3535.

Online extra

View a video of a 1920 Mack truck like the one used in the perilous 1928 delivery of the beacon, go to http://bit.ly/TMPlmJ.