FRANK C. WITTWER, LCDR, USN
Frank Wittwer '94
Date of birth: November 2, 1970
Date of death: January 18, 2006
Via USNA '94 and from The Fresno Bee on January 31, 2006:
Lt. Cmdr. Frank Carl Wittwer was far more than a highly decorated strike-fighter pilot at the Naval Air Station Lemoore before he met his death in a training mission almost two weeks ago, friends say.
Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer, remembered by about 600 people at a private memorial at the naval base chapel Monday afternoon, was a devoted husband and father of three children who could brighten his friends' day with a quick smile.
He was a fly fisherman who loved teaching Sunday school and singing in the choir that his wife, Melinda, directs at the First Presbyterian Church of Hanford.
Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer, 35, was remembered as a man of many talents who laughed often. He enjoyed jogging, riding his bicycle, skeet shooting and playing the trumpet. He was an expert fencer, just barely missing out on the Olympics in 1994, said close friend Robert Case.
However, Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer likely will be recalled by most as a loyal and compassionate friend who was there to lend a hand whenever it was needed.
"He was always concerned about other people's problems and wanted to do what he could to help," said Case, 75. "Frank was a different kind of person ... Forever positive, ever bright, one of the smartest people I know. Everybody he touched he brightened their life, including mine. I looked on him as a grandson."
Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer is survived by his wife and three children Erin, 7, Abigail, 5, and Jack, 3 months, Navy officials said.
Case attended Monday's gathering and also was one of about 400 people who turned out for a memorial service last week at the First Presbyterian Church of Hanford. Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer, who grew up in DeRidder, La. will be buried in his home state on Friday, said Dennis McGrath, public affairs officer for the naval base.
"I have never seen the chapel this packed," McGrath said of Monday's memorial. "People were standing in the back and halfway up the aisles. He had a lot of friends. I saw many people wiping their eyes."
The service included a 21-gun salute and a four-plane missing man formation that flew over the chapel.
"It was very emotional. This is a tough loss for the Navy. This is a tough loss for his family. It's a tough loss because he was just such a great guy," said friend and former supervisor Capt. Walt Stammer, 45, one of five speakers at Monday's memorial.
Stammer, who said he was devastated when he learned of Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer's death, flew in from Washington to attend the service. "He was phenomenal. He was one of those guys who had every quality that you would want."
The pilot was killed when his single-seat F/A-18C Hornet crashed during a routine training exercise near Naval Air Station El Centro on Jan. 18. As a member of Strike Fighter Squadron 97, Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer and the rest of the squad had been training at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego since Jan. 8 and using airspace near the El Centro base, McGrath said. Foggy weather prevented the squadrons from training near the Lemoore base.
The fighter pilots were practicing a bombing mission when the crash occurred. Nonexplosive cast-iron balls weighing about 25 pounds serve as mock bombs on the Hornets, McGrath said.
McGrath said Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer enlisted in the Navy after high school and had lived in Hanford since 1998. The quick-witted pilot graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md., in May 1994. During his stay in Lemoore, he served on three strike fighter squadrons and had more than 1,200 flight hours, McGrath said.
The lieutenant commander flew missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002-03. In April 2005, he was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 97, where he served as the maintenance officer, McGrath said. He recently completed the Executive MBA program in the Craig School of Business at California State University, Fresno, and was a member of the university's alumni association, according to the school's Web site.
Following the base memorial, mourners gathered to remember Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer as a friend and role model.
Navy gunner Jim Richardson, 43, drove in from Fallon, Nev., to say goodbye to his former squad mate. Richardson met him in March 2002 and remembers him as a leader, a friendly man who always had a wallet full of pictures of his family and who loved his bird dog Gracie.
"He was very much a family man," Richardson said. "Our squadron at a particular time was very close both in our professional and personal relationships."
Lt. Cmdr. Wittwer's untimely death left many friends questioning, why?
"I lived for 75 years and I'm at a loss for words. I wonder why Frank and not me?" Case asked. "If grown men don't cry, I'm just a kid at 75. ... I look forward to a long visit with him not too many years from now, with a sound hope that I'll be going to the same place as he is."
From Hartford Sentinel:
Every year, the Warhawks of Strike Fighter Squadron Nine Seven (VFA-97) remember their fallen comrade by recognizing the Junior Officer and Senior Enlisted Sailor who most embody the same qualities of leadership, compassion, enthusiasm and spirit that made Wittwer an outstanding Naval aviator and officer.