One of the first heroes of World War II was a Miner. He was also one of the first U.S. casualties of the war during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago.
George Allison Whiteman’s plane was gunned down by Japanese “Zero” fighter pilots on that “day which will live in infamy,” Dec. 7, 1941. He is considered the first American airman to die in aerial combat during World War II. But a half-decade earlier, Whiteman was a promising chemical engineering student at the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy.
By all accounts, Whiteman was a brilliant and determined student, traits that would later serve him well as a pilot in the Army Air Corps.
“Most of what I’ve heard from anybody saying anything about him was that he was very intelligent; he was a voracious reader; he had an inquiring mind; and he was just a nice guy,” recalls Whiteman’s niece, Gayle Kent.
Whiteman started school at MSM in 1935 after graduating two years early and in the upper 10th percentile of his class at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, Missouri. According to a family biography provided by Kent, Whiteman was proud to be a Miner and “thought Missouri School of Mines was second in academic excellence only to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
“On many occasions, he could be heard singing the Rolla engineering song which went ‘I am a rambling wreck from Rolla Tech, and a hell of an engineer,’” according to the biography.
Whiteman often hitchhiked to school in Rolla from his family’s house in Sedalia. When he would get to Rolla, Whiteman would mail a postcard back to his mother in Sedalia letting her know he made it safely. The Whiteman family still has some of these postcards in their possession.
Whiteman’s parents were unable to help their son pay for tuition, as they, among many other families across the country, were still recovering from the Great Depression. So, Whiteman turned to other sources to support his education. He received a $50 loan from his high school trigonometry teacher, Mattie Montgomery or “Mathematical Mattie”, participated in ROTC, worked odd jobs, stoked furnaces and had a scholarship, according to the biography.
But the financial hardships eventually caught up to Whiteman and he could no longer afford to attend MSM. Looking for a steady job, Whiteman decided to move to Chicago. He saved up some money and moved back to Sedalia. Soon after returning home, Whiteman enlisted in the Army with the goal of fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot.
Once Whiteman had completed advanced flying school and received his wings, he was “so thrilled that he sent his mother a picture of himself in the cockpit of a plane looking up at the sky labeled ‘Lucky, Lucky Me,’” according to the biography. This picture would be the enduring image of Whiteman, a bright-eyed young man realizing his dream.
Whiteman was almost immediately called to active duty with the Army Air Corps, and volunteered for duty in Hawaii. He was based at Wheeler Field in Oahu, before being temporarily reassigned to Bellows Field for aerial gunnery training.
Whiteman was getting dressed in his quarters on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese began bombing Pearl Harbor. He stepped out onto his veranda and “immediately guessed what was happening,” according to the family biography. He jumped into his car and raced the 25 miles to his plane at Bellows Field, being strafed by enemy fire along the way.
“It’s a miracle he even survived to get to Bellows Field because there were bullets holes all in his car where he had been strafed on the way over there,” says Kent. “His hat was lying in the seat beside him and it had holes in it.”
When Whiteman arrived at Bellows, he jumped out of his car and into a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. He taxied the plane out to the runway with the engine still cold and began his takeoff. He made it 50 feet into the air before he was shot down by enemy fire, according to the biography.
For his service and actions that day, Whiteman was awarded a Silver Star, Purple Heart, American Defense Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one bronze star and the World War II Victory Medal. The Silver Star is the military’s second-highest posthumous award.
“There was a lot of heroism from everyone that day, for sure,” says Kent.
In 1955, some 14 years after his death, Sedalia Air Force Base was renamed Whiteman Air Force Base in his honor.
“We appreciate how so many people and so many organizations have kept his name alive. They say that people aren’t really dead as long as they’re remembered,” says Kent.
Whiteman is now buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Sedalia. Every year, the city holds a wreath-laying ceremony for him and all those that died serving their country.
“People don’t think so much about what it takes, but all around the world there are cemeteries that have graves of thousands of American men and women that fought for us to be here today,” says Whiteman’s nephew, Dean Berry.
Photos provided by and published with the permission of the family of George Allison Whiteman.
On December 6, 2016. Posted in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, People, Top Headlines
Thanks for posting this story about George Whiteman! I first heard of him while serving as a Liaison Officer for the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1991, out in Hawaii. Two of his squadron mates, Lieutenants Kenneth Taylor and George Welch fared better that morning because their aircraft were parked on a grass airstrip at Haleiwa. They managed to get aloft and shot down six of the attacking aircraft, and three other pilots downed several more.
George Whiteman was the eldest of 10 children, and sent most of his Army Air Corps paychecks home to his parents in Sedalia. His squadron mates recalled that he lived very fugally in the Bachelor Officers Quarters at Wheeler Field. He was a chemical engineering major at the Missouri School of Mines prior to enlisting in the Air Corps. In those days the Army Air Corps was very particular about who they accepted for flight training, and only accepted young men between the ages of 19 and 27 who had written approval form both parents for them to serve in the Air Corps, because it was considered very hazardous duty.
My father, Dr. Glenn E. Brand (Chem E ’39, ’48) was very close friends with Whiteman, both starting at Rolla in 1935-dad spoke for decades of their many adventures and what a great guy he was, and his tragic death at Pearl Harbor I also heard this from other ’39 alumni I spoke to at Homecomings. My middle name is Whiteman is his honor.
At the WWII aviation museum in Colorado Springs there are 2 newspaper front pages displayed with news of the attack with Whiteman’s story shown.
To: Glenn Whiteman Brand:
This is Gayle Berry Kent. I am the niece of 2nd Lt. George Allison Whiteman. My mother, Susan Elaine Whiteman Berry Cramer was his younger sister (2nd born child). They were very close. Just returned from the first ever Remembrance Ceremonies (75th) at Bellows Field where he crashed. Would very much like to get in touch with you. If you have any pictures of Uncle George or letters etc would love to have digital copies. (Is your father in the picture of the “tug of war” team shown above? Would be glad to send you the digital copy I have.) And talk to you about Uncle George.
My daughter lives outside of Denver, CO. Next time I am out there to visit I will have to make a trip to the WWII aviation Museum there in Colorado Springs and check out those newspapers. Thank you for that info. Gayle
I am Glenn’s brother, and live in Colorado Springs. As Glenn said, George was a revered figure in our family, Glenn’s middle name is obviously one reflection of that. We were raised with stories of George’s amazing attitude and determination in the face of hardship. There is also an amusing story of his notification of receiving the Curator’s Scholarship (or whatever it was called back then), if you haven’t heard it already.
If you come to Colorado Springs, I would be delighted to meet with you and share a few stories and other information. Please contact me at email@example.com, or 719-533-1129 (landline), I can give you Glenn’s contact info as well.
Missouri S&T is an equal opportunity/access/affirmative action/pro-disabled and veteran employer and does not discriminate on the basis of sex in our education programs or activities, pursuant to Title IX and 34 CFR Part 106. For more information, see S&T's Nondiscrimination Policy or Equity and Title IX.
Leave a Reply