A twenty-three-year-old Amil Vernon Wittenberger was living in Jamestown and working for the Missouri Highway Department when he received some sage advice from a supervisor who believed the U.S. would soon be drawn into World War II—voluntarily enlist and have some choice in the direction of your military career. Heeding the suggestion, Wittenberger was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps at Jefferson Barracks on December 27, 1940.
“From Jefferson Barracks, he was sent to Chicago for aircraft maintenance training at a site known as Aeronautical University,” said the veteran’s son, Denny Wittenberger, who has painstakingly researched and detailed his father’s military service.
When his initial training as a mechanic was completed, the young airman was transferred to Selfridge Field, Michigan, where he was introduced to maintenance requirements for the P-40 Warhawk, a single-engine fighter manufactured by Curtiss-Wright. As the late veteran’s son explained, his time at the Michigan airfield introduced him to a group of iconic aviators who performed some of the most legendary aviation missions of the war.
“While he was there, they were assembling the P-40s for the Flying Tigers, who distinguished themselves defending China while fighting the Japanese,” said Denny Wittenberger. “My father told me years later that he volunteered to join them, but they declined his offer because at that time, he had not yet received the required training and experience.”
This only delayed his inevitable deployment overseas, and the mechanic was soon sent to the next destination in his military aircraft maintenance instruction—Dale Mabry Field near Tallahassee, Florida. It was here that he transitioned to working on another fighter aircraft, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Several weeks later, he reported to Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), where he refined his skills by continuing to perform maintenance on the P-47s.
“He and my mother, whom he had known before the war, were married during this timeframe and while my father was performing his military duties on the base, my mother taught school on the campus of the University of Florida,” said Denny Wittenberger. “Dad wasn’t there much longer because he was transferred to Lakeland, Florida, to learn maintenance on the new P-51 Mustangs,” he added.
In his book Allison-Engined P-51 Mustang, Martyn Chorlton wrote of the aircraft, “It was popular with all who flew it and no less popular with those who kept it flying.” The author further noted, “The increased range was a godsend and the increased speed a bonus …”
Assigned to the 458th Squadron of the 506th Fighter Group, the training Wittenberger received thus far culminated in combat application when the squadron received notice they were deploying to Iwo Jima in early 1945. U.S forces had captured the islands at a great cost in lives, and the U.S. Navy Seabees Construction Battalions were rebuilding Japanese runways to accommodate the squadron’s aircraft.
“Their aircraft began providing fighter escorts for the B-29s during long-range bombing missions against Japanese targets,” explained Denny Wittenberger. “These missions were often eight hours round-trip and sometimes included strafing missions if a target of opportunity was identified,” he added.
Achieving the rank of master sergeant, Wittenberger became the line sergeant for the squadron, having the responsibility for the overall maintenance for the planes of the squadron along with the eighty-four personnel and twenty-seven planes under his supervision and care. For the next several months, until the Japanese surrender, Wittenberger and his crew worked long hours to ensure their planes were ready for the next day’s missions. In a citation Wittenberger received from the commander of the 458th Fighter Squadron in September 1945, it was noted he “established a brilliant record of leadership” in addition to “… laboring many arduous hours at night with poor lighting facilities, (and overcoming) all obstacles confronted him.”
The veteran would be awarded two Bronze Star medals “for meritorious service in connection with military operations against an enemy of the United States …”
His son explained, “After serving four years and ten months on active duty, my father received his discharge on November 9, 1945. He returned to Jamestown and began life as a farmer while also operating the Jamestown Mercantile for a number of years.”
The veteran and his wife went on to raise one son. In later years, Wittenberger became a union electrician for Meyer Electric, retiring after working at the Callaway Nuclear Plant. Prior to his passing in 1993, his son explained, the veteran attended some of the reunions held for his squadron.
“There was a saying by one of the airman that the 506th was one of the last fighter squadrons to fight since they got there in early 1945, and the first ones forgotten,” said his son. “And when I attended the reunions with my father, it seemed like the pilots got all of the attention and the maintenance people were overlooked.” He added, “When those planes returned from a mission back in the war, those maintenance crews worked all night to make sure they were ready to go on the next mission. There were an incredible number of man-hours invested in that effort and I just want to make sure the dedication of my father and the maintenance crews is never forgotten.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.