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Honoring Whiteman's namesake

Elle Cronk, the great-great-niece of 2nd Lt. George Whiteman, plays at his graveside before the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Nearby Whiteman Air Force Base was named after the lieutenant, who was only 22 years old when he was one of the first Airmen to be killed during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Elle Cronk, the great-great-niece of 2nd Lt. George Whiteman, plays at his graveside before the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Nearby Whiteman Air Force Base was named after the lieutenant, who was only 22 years old when he became one of the first Airmen killed during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter fire a 3-volley rifle salute during the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman, a Sedalia native, was in the Air Force for less than two years when he became one of the first Airmen to die during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter fire a 3-volley rifle salute during the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman, a Sedalia native, was in the Air Force for less than two years when he became one of the first Airmen to die during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Eva Myers, James Callis and John Rucker lay the wreath at 2nd Lt. George Whiteman’s graveside during an annual ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. All three of them were also present at the first wreath-laying ceremony 25 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Eva Myers, James Callis and John Rucker lay the wreath at 2nd Lt. George Whiteman’s graveside during an annual ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. All three of them were also present at the first wreath-laying ceremony 25 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

The 509th Security Forces Squadron from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., pays respects to 2nd Lt. George Whiteman during the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. The 509th SFS and Sedalia are “sister cities” who help each other during community events which support Airmen.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

The 509th Security Forces Squadron from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., pays respects to 2nd Lt. George Whiteman during the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. The 509th SFS and Sedalia are “sister cities” who help each other during community events which support Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Joe Cochran, president of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, salutes the flag held by Lt. Col. Christopher Neiman, 509th Security Forces Squadron commander, during a wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman, who was born in Sedalia in 1919, died during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Joe Cochran, president of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, salutes the flag held by Lt. Col. Christopher Neiman, 509th Security Forces Squadron commander, during a wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman, who was born in Sedalia in 1919, died during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Family, community members and Airmen from Whiteman Air Force Base attend the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. The base was renamed in Whiteman’s honor 14 years after he became one of the first Airmen to die during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Family, community members and Airmen from Whiteman Air Force Base attend the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. The base was renamed in Whiteman’s honor 14 years after he became one of the first Airmen to die during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Members from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter salute while the flag is raised during a wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman, a Sedalia native, was one of the first Airmen to die during World War II when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Members from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter salute while the flag is raised during a wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman, a Sedalia native, was one of the first Airmen to die during World War II when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

The flag from 2nd Lt. George Whiteman’s annual wreath-laying ceremony is folded by local Veterans of Foreign Wars May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Nearby Whiteman Air Force Base was named in the young lieutenant’s honor in 1955 after he died during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

The flag from 2nd Lt. George Whiteman’s annual wreath-laying ceremony is folded by local Veterans of Foreign Wars May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Nearby Whiteman Air Force Base was named in the young lieutenant’s honor in 1955 after he died during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Von Holton, left, and Joe Cochran, local Veterans of Foreign Wars members, lower the flag during the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Both Holton and Cochran have attended many of the ceremonies honoring Whiteman, a pilot who was one of the first Airmen to die during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Von Holton, left, and Joe Cochran, local Veterans of Foreign Wars members, lower the flag during the 25th annual wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. Both Holton and Cochran have attended many of the ceremonies honoring Whiteman, a pilot who was one of the first Airmen to die during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Cadets from the Sedalia Army Junior ROTC Honor Guard raise a ceremonial flag to half-staff during a wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. The cadets are also from Smith-Cotton High School, where Whiteman graduated from before enlisting in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)
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Cadets from the Sedalia Army Junior ROTC Honor Guard raise a ceremonial flag to half-staff during a wreath-laying ceremony for 2nd Lt. George Whiteman May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo. The cadets are also from Smith-Cotton High School, where Whiteman graduated from before enlisting in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

Dave Rouchka, wreath-laying ceremony event coordinator, talks about 2nd Lt. George Whiteman’s legacy during a ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo., as members of the 509th Security Forces Squadron stands at attention in the background. The 509th SFS and Sedalia are “sister cities” and support each other in community events like this one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)
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Dave Rouchka, wreath-laying ceremony event coordinator, talks about 2nd Lt. George Whiteman’s legacy during a ceremony May 18, 2013, in Sedalia, Mo., as members of the 509th Security Forces Squadron stands at attention in the background. The 509th SFS and Sedalia are “sister cities” and support each other in community events like this one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley/Released)

SEDALIA, Mo. -- It was a life that began simply on a farm in Missouri and ended tragically on a Sunday morning in Hawaii.

On Dec. 7, 1941, 2nd Lt. George Whiteman had just lifted off in his P-40B Warhawk to fight back against the Japanese invasion of Oahu when enemy gunfire hit his cockpit, wounding him and throwing the plane out of control.

The plane crashed and Whiteman, just 22 years old, died from his injuries. Fourteen years later, the Air Force base just 20 miles from his hometown of Sedalia was renamed Whiteman Air Force Base in his honor.

Each year, members from Whiteman and the surrounding community hold a wreath-laying ceremony to remember the sacrifice this young lieutenant made. This year marked the 25th such year.

"It's about remembering those who gave their lives so we can experience the freedoms we have today," said John Rucker, a community member who was at the original wreath-laying ceremony in May 1988.

"When we started, it was just four of us who laid a box of flowers on Whiteman's gravesite," Rucker said. "We never realized where we'd be today with this tradition and it's wonderful to see how it has continually grown."

One way Whiteman contributes to this annual tradition is by sending a flight of Airmen from the 509th Security Forces Squadron, Sedalia's "sister city," to stand as a formation throughout the ceremony.

"This is the least we could do to support Sedalia and the sacrifice Whiteman made," said Lt. Col. Christopher Neiman, 509th SFS commander. "We really appreciate being able to honor the flag and the lieutenant with our presence."

When the wreath-laying ceremonies started a quarter of a century ago, there were only a handful of attendees. At the ceremony this year, more than 150 people attended, including 25 of Whiteman's nephews, nieces, great-nephews, great-nieces, great-great-nephews and great-great-nieces.