Mo. - It's impossible to know what is going through a man's mind in
the final minutes before he dies.
As 2nd Lt. George Whiteman
ran toward his P-40B Warhawk on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he
likely thought only of getting airborne to retaliate against the
attacking Japanese fighters.
As a burst of enemy gunfire shot
through his aircraft's cockpit wounding him, he may have thought of
his younger siblings back in Missouri, waiting for their big brother
to return safely.
As his plane crashed and burned moments
after he lifted off the runway, he may have thought of his mother
waiting for her first-born to make it home alive.
impossible to know exactly what Earlie Whiteman was doing at the
moment her son took his last breath.
Although it was morning
in Hawaii, it was afternoon in America and all throughout the
country, radio programs were interrupted with breaking news: Japan
had attacked Pearl Harbor.
At 10:13 p.m. that night, official
news reached Earlie back in Sedalia, Missouri: Her 22-year-old son
George had died. When interviewed by a newspaper reporter, she said,
“It's hard to believe. It might have happened anytime, anywhere.
We've got to sacrifice loved ones if we want to win this war.”
It was the same news 416,000 other mothers of American service
members during World War II would receive.
On Aug. 6, 1945,
pilots from the 509th Composite Group dropped the “Little Boy”
atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. On Aug. 9, more pilots dropped “Fat
Man” on Nagasaki.
George is now believed by many historians
to be the first pilot killed in aerial combat during the war.
Although his life was cut short, his legacy lives on in military
In 1955, the recently re-opened Sedalia Air Force Base was
renamed Whiteman Air Force Base in his honor. Fast forward to 2015.
Each year, a ribbon-covered wreath is placed on the young
lieutenant's grave to honor the sacrifice he made.
year's wreath-laying ceremony was held on May 16. As the flag was
raised to half-staff, George's grave was surrounded on three sides
by groups he impacted in one way or another. On one side were
Security Forces Airmen from the base, lined up in a neat formation
with sharp salutes. On another side, descendants from his nine
brothers and sisters solemnly watched the flag slide up the pole. On
the last side of the grave, veterans from multiple conflicts also
rendered the proper salutes.
The event's guest speaker was
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the 509th Bomb
Wing, which ties its roots back to the 509th Composite Group.
Airmen from the 509th Security Forces Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base attend a ceremony for the opening of the Whiteman Corridor May 16, 2015, in Sedalia, Mo. The base was named after 2nd Lt. George Whiteman, a Sedalia native who was killed during World War II. The P-40B Warhawk points to lieutenant's childhood home and represents the past, while the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber points toward the base and represents the future. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)
“He would be proud to know the wing that dropped the
atomic bomb and effectively ended the war now resides at the
base that bears his namesake,” said VanHerck.
VanHerck, whose first assignment as a young lieutenant was
also to the Pacific as a part of the 44th Fighter Squadron
under the 18th Fighter Wing, said he feels a personal
connection to Whiteman, who was assigned to the forefather
units of that squadron.
“Whiteman had two choices: He could run from the fight
or he could run toward it,” said the general. “He could have
easily spared his life, but he placed himself in harm's way
for his country, his family, his fellow Airmen and all of us
standing here today. He embodied everything we desire in our
This year, in addition to the
traditional wreath-laying ceremony, plaques were placed at
locations throughout his hometown on a route known as the
Whiteman Corridor. The plaque located in Katy Park at the
intersection of 24th and Grand streets is accompanied by two
metal sculptures by local artist Don Luper.
first sculpture, a P-40 pointing toward his childhood home,
represents the past. The second sculpture, a B-2 Spirit
stealth bomber pointing toward Whiteman Air Force Base,
represents the future. Together, they are called “Whiteman:
Legacy of Freedom.”
“Whiteman Air Force Base has
grown and changed many times in the past 60 years, but its
mission remains the same as Lt. Whiteman's missions that
early December morning: To protect this country, its people
and its freedom from those that would do it harm,” said
Dianne Simon, who serves on Sedalia's Military Affairs
“When the base received its current name,
many Sedalia residents would have still remembered Lt.
Whiteman and his family, or known others who have served and
sacrificed in that Great War,” Simon added. “Today, the
numbers of that generation are rapidly dwindling and we do
not want the memory of Lt. Whiteman to fade away with them.”
George Williams, the lieutenant's nephew who was
named after his uncle, agreed that it's important to
remember the pilot's sacrifice.
doesn't fully understand what he did and what others did,”
said Williams, who added he's very proud of the service
members who gave the sacrifice then as well as the ones who
are serving now. “This ceremony helps keep it in front of
It's impossible to know what Whiteman would
think of his legacy, but it's likely he would have been
proud of the base that bears his name and the Airmen who
help keep his memory alive.
By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley
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