by Staff Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley
509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
5/21/2015 - WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, 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
It's 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 breakings
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 August 6, 1945, pilots from the 509th Composite Group dropped the
"Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. On August 9, a second crew
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 history.
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.
This 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
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
"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 a choice: he could run from the fight or he could run to
the fight," 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 service members."
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.
The 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 Committee.
"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.
"Today's generation 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 them."
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.