FRANK M. WHITAKER, LCDR, USN

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Frank Whitaker '34

Date of birth: June 20, 1910

Date of death: February 2, 1944

Age: 33

Lucky Bag

From the 1934 Lucky Bag:


Loss

Frank was lost in a mid-air collision over Engebi Island on February 2, 1944, while operating from USS Bunker Hill (CV 17) as Commanding Officer of Torpedo Squadron (VT) 17. This was a part of the Battle of Eniwetok.

His wife was listed as next of kin.

Obituary

From Together We Served:

THE FIRST SKIPPER - FRANK M. WHITAKER

Frank M. Whitaker was born in 1910 at Spokane, Washington. His family had settled there in 1876, his father a physician and grandfather a farmer near Pullman. Frank was an accomplished artist and musician in high school, where he played football and turned out for track. In 1927, on the day Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Frank won the state 220 low hurdles championship.

Frank attended Gonsaga University in Spokane before winning an appointment to the Naval Academy in 1930, where he continued to participate in sports, music and art.

After graduation in 1934, he served nine months aboard the USS MARYLAND (BB-46), followed by two years aboard USS CROWNINSHIELD (DD-134), an old four-pipe destroyer later turned over to Britain as part of the lend-lease program.

The Class of 1934 was full of over-achievers. One reason was the congressional mandate that only the upper half of each class receive a Navy Commission. The others entered the Reserve and waited for an opening. President Roosevelt’s expansion of the Navy created a new demand for officers, so all of the 1934 and subsequent classes were commissioned.

Frank applied for flight training and reported to Pensacola in January 1937. Fourteen months later, Frank was assigned to Torpedo Six (VT-6), LCDR W. B. Ault commanding. VT-6 received 18 new TBD Devastators between February and April 1938 and then deployed on the USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6) shakedown cruise to Rio de Janeiro (18 July to 22 September 1938).

Frank was detailed to fly the cameraman and director of the MGM feature film “Flight Command.” Following this 3-month stint, Frank reported for duty in Pensacola with Training Squadron 1-B. This was followed by a brief tour as XO of a squadron assigned to USS Bogue before assuming command of VT-17. The film “Flight Command” was released in 1940, starring Robert Taylor as a new ensign, Walter Pidgeon as the skipper and Ruth Hussey as the skipper’s wife. The aerial scenes were flown by real Navy pilots from a squadron based at San Diego at the time.

Training Squadron VN-1B was based at Corry Field, one of 16 bases then flying the bi-wing N2S/N3N Yellow Peril. This was Primary flight training lasting about three months, beginning with taxiing the tail-dragger aircraft and ending with formation and night flying. Each student accumulated about 110-hours of flying, dual and solo, plus a couple hundred hours of class-room instruction. Frank probably instructed at Corry from the summer of 1940 until the summer of 1942.

In June of 1942, VGS-9 (later VC-9) was in Kodiak flying F4Fs. In July, the squadron moved to NAS Seattle. In September, the squadron had 6 F4Fs and 4 TBFs. The squadron moved to San Pedro in October and then to San Diego in November, at which time the squadron had their full complement of 12 F4F and 9 TBF aircraft, commanded by LCDR William B. Drane. USS BOGUE (ACV-9 later CVE-9) arrived in San Diego near the end of November. By mid-December, the ship and squadron were reported “at sea” and arrived in Norfolk on New Year’s Day. The exact dates of Frank’s service with this squadron are unknown.

VT-17 was officially commissioned on 1 January 1943, LCDR Frank M. Whitaker commanding. However, the squadron had only 13 aircraft by the end of February, with new pilots and aircraft dribbling in over the next few weeks.

The other skippers in Air Group Seventeen (CVG-17) were LCDR John Thomas Blackburn 1 (NA 1933) the skipper of VF-17, and LCDR James E. Vose 2 (NA 1934) the skipper of VB-17. The Air Group Commander (CAG) was CDR Michael P. Bagdanovich (NA 1929). According to Blackburn, Frank was known as the Silver Fox in those days, probably because of his premature gray hair.

The air group boarded USS BUNKER HILL in July 1943. Frank and his 1st division became known as “Hobo.” The 2nd division became “Boxcar”; and the 3rd division became “Caboose.” Their home aboard BUNKER HILL became “Hobotown.” “Roundhouse” was the call for pilots to rendezvous. “Chow Down” was the signal to prepare to attack and “Dinner is ready” signaled the target is sighted.

Frank had met Mary Lewellin during his tours in San Diego and they married in June 1937. The couple raised two children, Frank III and Margaret, who were 6 and 3 at the time of Frank’s tragic death. Frank and his wingman had a mid-air collision on 2 February 1944, near Engebi Island in the Eniwetok Atoll. There are few details on exactly how the collision occurred, but witnesses saw both aircraft hit the water and the area was thoroughly searched for survivors without success.

Remembrances

At Torpedo Squadron 17 there is a full history of the squadron, which was established with Frank as the first Commanding Officer. "According to Tom Blackburn, skipper of VF-17, LCDR Whitaker "begged, borrowed, or stole several airborne radars, which he used to develop foul-weather and night-attack techniques that eventually won fleetwide acceptance in early 1944"."

A day-by-day history of the squadron is also available at Fist History. "VT-17 Commanding Officer, LCDR WHITAKER, was killed in a mid-air collision over Engebi Island. His wingman, LTJG ED STACK, was also killed along with their six crewmen. The Washington columnist RAYMOND CLAPPER, riding in Whitaker's aircraft, was also killed."

Distinguished Flying Cross

1934 Whitaker 1.jpg

From Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander Frank Melvin Whitaker (NSN: 0-73547), United States Navy, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while leading his torpedo squadron in a daring attack on Japanese forces at Rabaul, on 11 November 1943. Lieutenant Commander Whitaker aided in the sinking of a destroyer and a cruiser, the probable destruction of another cruiser, and the severe damaging of two other combatant vessels.

General Orders: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 329 (August 1944)
Action Date: November 11, 1943
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Company: Torpedo Squadron 17 (VT-17)

From Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander Frank Melvin Whitaker (NSN: 0-73547), United States Navy, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while commanding Torpedo Squadron SEVENTEEN (VT-17) in the New Ireland area from 25 December 1943 to 5 January 1944. Lieutenant Commander Whitaker led his squadron against Japanese vessels in Kavieng Harbor in the face of persistent anti-aircraft fire and intense fighter opposition. His squadron destroyed two large cargo vessels, one destroyer and three barges and severely damaged two cruisers, four destroyers, several small cargo ships, numerous barges and one torpedo boat.

General Orders: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 329 (August 1944) Action Date: December 25, 1943 - January 5, 1944
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Company: Torpedo Squadron 17 (VT-17)

From Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting a Second Gold Star in lieu of a Third Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander Frank Melvin Whitaker (NSN: 0-73547), United States Navy, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as Commanding Officer of Torpedo Squadron SEVENTEEN (VT-17) in the Marshall Islands area from 29 January to 2 February 1944. Lieutenant Commander Whitaker led his squadron on two pre-dawn glide bombing attacks, without fighter escort, against enemy air installations at Kwajalein and Engebi. Despite devastating anti-aircraft fire, his squadron so damaged the airfields that they were useless to the enemy. On a second assault the same day he attacked and sank a merchant vessel.

General Orders: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 331 (October 1944)
Action Date: January 29 - February 2, 1944
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Company: Torpedo Squadron 17 (VT-17)


Class of 1934

Frank is one of 41 members of the Class of 1934 in Memorial Hall.