Why are we called Whiteman AFB?

  • Published
  • By Margaret DePalma
  • 509th Bomb Wing historian
George Allison Whiteman, the eldest of 10 children of John and Earlie Whiteman, was born at the Wilkerson farm in Pettis County near Longwood, Mo., Oct. 12, 1919.

In 1935, following graduation from Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, Mo. Whiteman enrolled in the Rolla School of Mines in Rolla, Mo., to get a degree in chemical engineering.

To pay his tuition, Whiteman accepted a $50 loan from his high school trigonometry teacher, performed odd jobs, stoked furnaces and joined the ROTC.

In 1937 he quit school and moved to Chicago where he worked at a White Castle hamburger restaurant. His average salary was $18-a-week with two meals per day included.

Two years later, Whiteman returned to Missouri, and on Oct. 20, 1939, enlisted in the Army. From his first duty station at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., he was sent to Fort Winfield Scott, Calif., and in February 1940, received orders to report to Randolph Field, Texas, to begin training as a pilot.

In his letters home, the young cadet described his schedule as "ground school, flying planes, drill, athletics, studying, 10 p.m. bed check and 6 a.m. reveille."

Whiteman wrote that the mortality rate at the school was 40 percent in the first six weeks of training. In a letter dated April 24, 1940, he described a cross country flight in Ryan PT-22 trainers, and night flying training. He also expressed the desire that "(Adolf) Hitler would fall out of bed and break his neck."

Following his graduation from flight school Nov. 15, 1940, the newly-commissioned Army Air Corps second lieutenant sent his sister a postcard with a picture of him in the cockpit of his plane.

"He is not looking back," said Lt. Col. Craig Allton, 509th Security Forces Squadron commander, during the annual memorial ceremony for Lieutenant Whiteman at Memorial Park Cemetery, in Sedalia on May 19.

"(Instead,) his eyes are cast skyward. His flight goggles are perched on top of his head. His brow is furrowed a bit but still reflects unbridled confidence and independence," Colonel Allton added. "He grins slightly as he glances toward the clouds, as if he was happiest soaring through the heavens."

Indeed, on the postcard Lieutenant Whiteman inscribed the words "Lucky, lucky me."
Early in 1940, he volunteered to fly Curtiss P-36 Hawk fighters to San Diego where the planes and pilots were put aboard an aircraft carrier bound for Hawaii. After arrival the planes were flown to their permanent bases on the island.

In Hawaii, Lieutenant Whiteman was assigned to the 18th Pursuit Group, 44th Pursuit Squadron (today's 18th Wing and 44th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan), at Wheeler Field, Oahu, Hawaii.

Although Lieutenant Whiteman was assigned to Wheeler Field, his squadron also had planes at Bellows Field on the northeast coast of Oahu.

The available planes were the P-36, P-40, Curtiss P-40C and D Tomahawks. The latter was equipped with an Allison V-1710-34 engine, four .50-caliber machine guns in the wing, two .30-caliber guns in the nose and heavier armor plating protection for the pilot.

The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, was like so many other tropical days -- peaceful and pleasantly warm with crystal clear skies.

When the Japanese began bombing Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m., Lieutenant Whiteman was in his quarters. He stepped onto the veranda, looked in the direction of Pearl Harbor, and immediately guessed what was happening. Within five minutes the young Airman had changed into his service uniform and was speeding toward Wheeler Field 25 miles away.

Upon arriving and seeing that the destruction had left no planes in flying condition, Lieutenant Whiteman raced to Bellows Field.

Cpl. Harold Kolom, sitting under the wing of a plane writing a letter, looked up to see nine Zeros attacking an incoming B-17.

As Corporal Kolom ran toward a parked plane, he saw Lieutenant Whiteman's car race up to the runway. Maj. D.L. Waddington also saw Lieutenant Whiteman run to one of the P-40s where men were loading ammunition into the guns.

Lieutenant Whiteman started the engine and taxied out to the runway with the engine still cold. In fact, Lieutenant Whiteman had been so quick to leave that the armorers did not have time to install the gun cowlings back on the wings.

The young aviator began his takeoff and had gotten approximately 50 feet in the air when two Zeros opened fire on him. He attempted to turn inside the two Zeros on his tail; however, the P-40 was too slow and cumbersome.

Enemy bullets hit the engine, wings and cockpit. Whiteman tried to make a belly landing on the beach north of the field, but instead crashed and the plane went up in flames.
The news of Lieutenant Whiteman's death reached his family at 10:13 p.m., the evening of Dec. 7, 1941.

The telegram read: "2nd Lt. George A. Whiteman killed in action this date. Further information will reach you from War Dept Washington. Sincere sympathy, Short, Commanding General, Ft Schafter."

In an interview with the Sedalia Democrat that evening, Mrs. Whiteman said: "It's hard to believe. There might have been a mix-up it all happened so quickly. There's nothing we can do but wait for further news from Washington," she added. "It might have happened anytime, anywhere. We've got to sacrifice loved ones if we want to win this war."

She gave the reporter the photograph of her son sitting in his aircraft with the inscription "Lucky, lucky me."

Lieutenant Whiteman was initially buried in Oahu. After the war his family exercised a military program option which allowed next-of-kin to bring home the bodies of soldiers killed during the war. On Oct. 3, 1947, 1st Lt. Rex Fuller escorted Lieutenant Whiteman's body back to Missouri. The funeral was held Nov. 1, 1947, and the fallen flyer was laid to rest in Memorial Park Cemetery in Sedalia. Post 16 of the American Legion provided the military services.

Lieutenant Whiteman is believed to be one of the first Airmen killed during the assault which marked the United States' entry into World War II.

For his gallantry that day, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the American Defense Medal with a Foreign Service clasp, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal with one bronze star and the World War II Victory Medal.

Fourteen years after his death, another honor was bestowed on Lieutenant Whiteman when his mother was notified that the recently reopened Sedalia Air Force Base would be renamed Whiteman Air Force Base in tribute to her son.

The dedication and renaming ceremony took place Dec. 3, 1955. Among those paying tribute were members of the Whiteman family, U.S. Senator from Missouri Stuart Symington, Maj. Gen. Francis Griswold, Strategic Air Command vice commander, Maj. Gen. Walter Sweeney, 8th Air Force commander and Julian Bagby, Mayor of Sedalia, who presented Mrs. Whiteman with a portrait of her son based upon the photo of him in the cockpit of his plane he had sent to his sister.

An anonymous individual once said "war is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares more about than his own personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made so by the exertions of better men than himself."

Lieutenant Whiteman felt his country was worth fighting for; he knew the risk that faced him that December day and yet he put aside his personal well-being, indeed gave his life for the good of an entire nation.

George A. Whiteman was a young man with much to offer. We, as the beneficiaries of Lieutenant Whiteman's gift, should take time to reflect on his sacrifice, show our respect for him and live each day in a way that would make him proud of what we have accomplished.

He deserves nothing less.