Whiteman history revisited, heroes remembered

  • Published
  • By Margret DePalma
  • 509th Bomb Wing Historian
The proud heritage of Whiteman Air Force Base dates back to 1942 when U.S. Army Air Corp officials selected the site of the present-day base to be the home of Sedalia Army Air Field and a training base for Waco glider pilots, who saw action in World War II.

Following the war, the airfield remained in service as an operational location for Army Air Corp C-46 and C-47 transports. In December 1947, the base was inactivated, but with the birth of the Air Force as a separate, independent service, and the subsequent formation of the Strategic Air Command, the site of the former airfield was considered for other missions such as the possible site for the Air Force Academy.

In August 1951, SAC selected Sedalia AFB to be one of its new bombardment wings, with the first all-jet bomber, the B-47 Stratojet and the KC-97 aerial refueling tanker assigned to the unit. Construction of facilities was conducted by the 4224th Air Base Squadron until Oct. 20, 1952, when the base was turned over to the 340th Bombardment Wing. The first B-47 arrived March 25, 1954, and by the end of the following month the wing had 18 bombers assigned. The first KC-97 arrived Oct. 12, 1954.

Gen. Nathan F. Twining, then Air Force Chief of Staff, informed Earlie Whiteman August 24, 1955 that the recently reopened Sedalia AFB would be renamed Whiteman Air Force Base in tribute to her son, 2nd Lt. George A. Whiteman who was one of the first Airmen killed during the assault on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. The dedication and renaming ceremony took place Dec. 3, 1955.

Throughout its history Whiteman AFB personnel have nurtured and maintained outstanding relations with the local communities. They presented the "big picture," an overall view of the Air Force, to the local citizenry. Base personnel also contributed to civic and charitable groups. The base fire department began acquainting civilian fire fighters and law enforcement agencies with new crash, rescue and fire fighting techniques. This training and cooperation was put to the ultimate test May 15, 1962.

On that particular day, a B-47 Stratojet medium bomber, assigned to the 340th Bomb Wing, was on the Whiteman flight line for routine maintenance. In mid-afternoon, Capt. Robert Celmer and his crew had completed their exterior preflight inspection with no discrepancies, and began their interior inspection.

The interior inspection progressed normally until the co-pilot's air refueling valve was opened. Almost immediately, the crew chief reported fuel was spewing from around the nose of the aircraft. He instructed the crew to evacuate the aircraft.

The crew chief ran to the MD-3 generator and turned off the aircraft power and unit ignition switches. The initial fire started around the MD-3 generator, after it was turned off and rapidly spread underneath the aircraft.

The fire department was immediately notified and quickly responded. The initial fire caused by the fuel spillage (or at least all visible fire) had apparently been extinguished. The wing commander, Col. Willis F. Lewis, was advised that the entire fuselage was covered with foam and the fire was under control.

The base fire Chief P.E. Ralls, Airman 2nd Class Joseph Palagonia, Airmen 3rd Class Jacob Lang and Wayne Hower began the process of "reentry" operations to assure all fire and hot spots were eliminated. They slowly approached the jet, inching their way toward the belly of the aircraft to find the cause of the problem. It was their last move.

Suddenly, the first engine exploded and Chief Ralls and his three firefighters were killed instantly. Thousands of slivers of metal sliced the air around the airplane. The time was about 4 p.m. Surviving fire fighting personnel continued to aggressively fight the fire as it burned out of control for three hours and 15 minutes; however, their efforts were unsuccessful and the crippled aircraft was reduced to a hulk.

More than 50 military aircraft were strung down the flightline on this day, and the B-47 was practically in the middle. When the engine blew on the Stratojet, it set off a chain reaction. Other tanks began to explode, sending hundreds of gallons of burning aviation fuel 100 feet across the flightline. Many Airmen were suddenly caught in a burning rain of fuel and some were actually on top of the plane when it exploded. Several Airmen were seen desperately rolling on the ground to extinguish their burning uniforms.

The final accident toll was four men killed, 18 injured (six of which were considered serious) and one aircraft completely destroyed. Two other men later died as a result of their injuries obtained in the fire.

From the testimony of aircrew, launch crew and other witnesses, it was determined that the initial fire resulted from ignition of the major fuel spillage spewing from the forward part of the aircraft.

The post accident teardown of the sliding valve assembly revealed still another clue as to the cause of the mishaps. A foreign metallic object was found embedded in the lower portion of the sliding valve. This foreign object was of sufficient size to cause the piston to bind within the cylinder.

Other damages which occurred were the result of secondary fires spreading throughout the fuel-filled sewerage systems beneath the base. The Accident Investigation Board recommended that all bases survey and include a procedure in the Base Disaster Plan for combating fires in the drainage system.

Overall, the AIB praised Whiteman Airmen for their timely and appropriate actions which minimized further damage to property and personnel.

"There were dozens of unrecognized heroes in the drama," said William W. Wood, who was stationed at Whiteman AFB at the time of the accident. "People who braved the danger zone, clambered into cockpits of nearby aircraft and proceeded to maneuver them out of danger. Some of these individuals had never handled the controls of a jet, and acted out of sheer courage and necessity."

It is the heroism and courage of Team Whiteman members then and now, at home and deployed, which we remember on this anniversary.