Lt. George A. Whiteman - Sedalia airman killed at Pearl Harbor was Missouri’s first WWII casualty
The memory of many notable events and people from Missouri’s military history is preserved through marble shafts, statues and various types of monuments. One local community, however, came together after the Second World War to ensure the sacrifice of one of their native sons killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would live on for ages through the naming of Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB) near Knob Noster, Missouri.
The story of Whiteman AFB begins with the birth of George Allison Whiteman on October 12, 1919 in the small town of Longwood, located several miles north of Sedalia. He went on to attend local grade schools and graduated from Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia. According to the December 7, 1971 edition of the Sedalia Democrat, Whiteman made the decision to attend the Rolla School of Mines “because the Armed Forces told him if he attended college he could enter the Army Air Force as an officer, and might possibly become a pilot.”
Spending two years matriculating at Rolla, the article goes on to explain that the aspiring pilot was informed by military recruiters he was “too light” to serve in the Army Air Corps. Not discouraged, Whiteman enlisted in the Coastal Artillery but was eventually able to join the Air Corps and was sent to pilot training at Kelly Field in Texas. On November 15, 1940, he earned his pilot wings and commission as a second lieutenant.
Adventure appeared to be on the horizon for the new officer when he was assigned to a unit at Hamilton Field, Calif., that was scheduled for service on Martinique—a French island located in the Caribbean—but when the unit’s commander requested six pilots to volunteer for service in Hawaii, Whiteman’s fate was soon established.
Arriving in Hawaii in the early part of 1941, Whiteman and his fellow volunteers traveled to their assigned duty stations at Wheeler Army Airfield located on the island of Oahu adjacent to Pearl Harbor. In an interview with the staff of the Sedalia Democrat that appeared in print on December 7, 1958, Maj. Charles King—who served with Whiteman in Hawaii—shared the details of the aviator’s death.
“The (Japanese) plane swooped low and strafed some of the men who were swimming and then zoomed away,” noted King, adding, “that while the men were running back to the unit to report the incident, word came through to load ammunition in the Curtiss P-40s and disperse them in the area.”
King went on to explain that while men were rushing out to load ammunition on the planes, “12 Japanese Zero’s started strafing the field” while Whiteman, the first pilot to reach his aircraft, “climbed in and started the engine.”
The account given by King further notes that Lt. Whiteman headed for the runway without having the time to grab his flying suit equipment or giving the gun crews time to replace the gun cowling on his aircraft. While proceeding down the runway, King stated, two Japanese pilots spotted Whiteman’s P-40B, named “Lucky Me,” and began strafing the aircraft with machine-gun fire. Although Whiteman’s plane was able to lift off, he was attacked head-on by the Japanese pilots. As King described to the newspaper, “The lieutenant veered his plane to the right and tried to make a belly landing on the beach, but a combination of Japanese bullets and the fire resulted in a flaming crashing and Lt. Whiteman’s death.”
The first Missourian killed in World War II, Whiteman was laid to rest in the Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery in Hawaii on December 9, 1941. The airman’s remains were later returned to Missouri and reinterred in Sedalia’s Memorial Park Cemetery. A year following his death, Whiteman’s parents received the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals posthumously awarded to their son.
While Whiteman’s parents attempted to cope with the grief from the loss of the oldest of their eight sons, they were again visited by tragedy when Whiteman’s younger brother, Marshall, was killed in action on April 9, 1953 while serving with the Marine Corps in the Korean War.
According to the Sedalia Convention & Business Bureau, the Sedalia Glider Base was established in November 1942, approximately two years after Lt. Whiteman graduated from his flight training. Undergoing several expansions and changes in the ensuing years, in 1954 the Air Force announced it was seeking nominations from civic groups for the renaming of the airfield.
“The United States Air Force plans to rename the Sedalia Air Force Base in memory of some nationally prominent deceased figure,” reported the Sedalia Democrat on June 24, 1954. The article further noted, “Sedalians feel the qualifications for the name of Whiteman are fulfilled with his acts at Pearl Harbor when he endeavored to take his plane into the air and fight the invaders.”
During a dedication and renaming ceremony on December 3, 1955, the Sedalia Air Force Base underwent the official transition to Whiteman Air Force Base, nearly fourteen years following the death of its namesake.
Newspaper reports subsequent to Whiteman’s death characterized the inspiration provided by his sacrifice at Pearl Harbor as hundreds of aviation cadets wished to expedite their training to avenge the attack that took the Sedalia airman’s life.
In a letter of condolence to the parents of Whiteman printed in December 10, 1941 edition of the Sedalia Democrat, Missouri Secretary of State Dwight Brown expressed not only his appreciation for the sacrifice made by Whiteman, but summarized his affection for the valiant and patriotic manner in which Whiteman’s mother viewed the unexpected loss of her son.
“I have read with interest the statement credited to you: ‘We have got to expect to sacrifice our loved ones if we want to win this war,’” Brown wrote. He added, “These are the words of an American woman devoted to the American way of life. Your expression is an inspiration to every man and woman in the land.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.