“Working with such luminaries as Hyman Rickover and Elmo Zumwalt was not for the faint-hearted — and even Whitey did not come away unscathed,” biographer Peter Mersky wrote in his book, “Whitey.”
“Yet, through it all, he retained an affable demeanor that characterized this rare and highly skilled naval aviator. His life story could serve as a model for any young aviator to follow.”
He was Rear Adm. Edward Lewis “Whitey” Feightner, born in Lima, Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1919, graduated from Findlay College and learned to fly under the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program.
When World II broke out, he became a U.S. Navy ace aviator, shooting down nine Japanese aircraft in the South Pacific, earning four Distinguished Flying Cross medals and numerous other awards. He rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.
Now retired and living in Coeur d’Alene, Admiral Feightner celebrated his 100th birthday on Monday.
Initially, he wanted to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, but because he’d have to wait eight months for flight training, he joined the Navy’s Aviation Cadet Training program because they’d take him right away.
After graduating as a Navy pilot and ensign, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), but it was sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of Midway before he could sign in.
Instead, he was sent to Naval Air Station Pu’unene on Maui for more flight training. The commander was Edward “Butch” O’Hare — the Navy’s first WW II ace, just back from the Pacific, having shot down five Japanese “Betty” bombers in a single day.
For his action, O’Hare was the first naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor.
With President FDR at the award ceremony, Butch’s wife Rita placed the medal around his neck.
Aviation History magazine wrote that O’Hare was “modest, inarticulate, humorous, terribly nice and more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing.”
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named after him.
Feightner said one of the best pieces of advice he learned from O’Hare was, “First of all, remember, in today’s world, whenever you take off and engage the enemy, you’re going to be outnumbered.
“If you want to survive this war, you have to look behind you every chance you get. Even when you pull the trigger, be sure to look behind because there’s gonna be someone back there.”
O’Hare nicknamed him “Whitey” because Feightner would turn lobster red after long hours in the sun, but could never hold a tan.
In October 1942, Feightner was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise — “Big E” — docked in Pearl Harbor. He would be flying the Grumman F4E Wildcat fighter.
Leaving Hawaii, the Big E headed for the Solomon Islands, where the Battle of Guadalcanal was raging.
Ten days later, he shot down his first enemy aircraft — a Japanese Aichi D3A dive bomber that was attacking the Enterprise. He was also credited with a probable kill of another aircraft.
For that day’s combat, Ensign Feightner was awarded an Air Medal and gold award star.
Multiple accounts agree that Feightner had natural aviator skills. “His reflexes and luck were to follow him throughout his storied career,” author Mersky said.
The Enterprise was out of action for three months undergoing repairs before Feightner saw action again. When he did, he shot down three Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” torpedo bombers in one day — earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.
“You’re a fighting fool, aren’t you!” said James H. Flatley Jr., his commanding officer.
He would earn three more DFCs.
Whitey needed one more kill to become an ace. That happened on March 30, 1944, over Peleliu when he shot down a Zero (AKA “Zeke”) fighter.
Number six was another Zero the following month.
Then all in one day — Oct. 12 — he sent three more Zeros to their doom in the Aerial Battle of Taiwan-Okinawa.
That made nine Japanese rising sun flags painted on the side of his plane.
During the final year of the war, Feightner returned stateside and was assigned duty as a flight instructor, and then gunnery officer.
He stayed in the Navy with most of his post-war duties as a test pilot and Naval consultant working with manufacturers to help improve their aircraft.
One short-lived combat plane Whitey flew had a checkered reputation. It was the Vought F7U Cutlass that he flight-tested after being appointed project manager.
The carrier fighter-bomber was designed to fly 600 mph at 40,000 feet altitude, but was plagued with multiple design problems. He survived several near-fatal accidents flying the Cutlass.
The biggest problem was an under-powered engine — resulting in the plane earning the nickname “Gutless Cutlass.”
In 1951 on board the USS Midway, Feightner made the first and only aircraft carrier takeoff and landing of the early dash-1 version of the Cutlass.
The following year, he was assigned to lead the Navy’s famed “Blue Angels” aerobatic team.
When he was told that they were to fly the Cutlass, he offered his resignation on the spot. They used it for only one year as a solo, then switched to other aircraft.
Twice during his distinguished career, Feightner commanded ships at sea, and also held multiple assignments as commanding officer of naval units.
He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1970.
“In between tours at sea, he served in the Pentagon dealing with all the personalities and political turmoil of the time while trying to bring naval aviation into the future,” biographer Mersky wrote.
After 33 years of service, the Admiral retired from active duty on June 30, 1974, and remained in Washington, D.C., promoting the Navy.
Then they moved to Ohio, his home state.
His wife, Vi passed away in 2015. They were married 67 years. Though they had no children of their own, they raised their nephew, James McBride, who then suggested his family and the Admiral move to Coeur d’Alene — which they did.
On his 95th birthday, Admiral Feightner was given a ride in a high-performance two-seat Aero L-39 Albatross training jet after an air show in Cleveland, and invited to take over the controls.
“He was quite smooth on the controls, really remarkable considering how little he has flown in the last 50 years,” his nephew said.
Reminiscing about his career, the Admiral said, “If I had to do it over, I would not change a thing.
“I would do it over in a flash!”
Now he’s 100 years old — a true American hero.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com. Syd thanks Jim McBride and Paul Villandré for assistance in research.