One of America’s last World War II fighter aces died on April 1, at the age of 100. Rear Admiral Edward L. “Whitey” Feightner passed away after a lifetime of service to the nation. His naval career lasted 32 years, from 1942, when he enlisted after graduation from Findlay College in Ohio, to 1974, after commanding air squadrons, two ships, and serving in senior Pentagon staff positions.
Feightner (whose nickname supposedly came from the fact that he never suntanned, but only burned) shipped out to the Pacific after flight school for duty aboard the USS Yorktown, but did not reach the ship before she was sunk during the Battle of Midway. After being based in Hawaii, Feightner was sent to the South Pacific, where he began racking up kills. On March 30, 1944, he became an ace (5 confirmed kills) when he shot down a Japanese Zero while flying an F6F Hellcat off the USS Bunker Hill. His ace kill came over Peleilu, scene of some of the most brutal fighting in the Pacific War, immortalized by Eugene Sledge in With the Old Breed. Feightner went on to record a total of 9 kills, with 4 probables, making him just shy of a double ace.
After the war, Feightner stayed in the Navy, and graduated in the Navy’s second class of test pilots at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, in Maryland. He spent years testing jet aircraft, after being checked out in 1946 in the U.S. Army Air Force’s first operational jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. He was a member of the Blue Angels in the 1950s and later served as the head of fighter design for the Navy, becoming instrumental in choosing the F-14 Tomcat fighter, a mainstay of the fleet for decades. Married for 67 years, he outlived his wife Violet Volz by five years. Moreover, Feightner was born during the 1918–1920 Spanish Flu pandemic and died during the 2019–2020 Wuhan novel coronavirus pandemic.
I only met Whitey Feightner once, around ten years ago at a lunch meeting of a local group of retired fighter and test pilots (of which I am decidedly not one). Having heard that my then middle-school-aged son needed to interview a veteran for a writing project, Whitey happily agreed to meet him. He spent a good hour talking with my son, telling old war tales. In particular, he relished a story about a photo reconnaissance run over a small, Japanese-held island in the South Pacific. His plane was savaged by ground fire and ack-ack (go look it up, youngsters), and he beamed as he told us, 60-odd years later, how he nursed it out to sea with most of its tail, stabilizer, and ailerons shot off, since he wasn’t going to bail out over Japanese-held territory. “We were so young, we never thought we would die,” he told my son, “even though boys died around us every day.”
The Greatest Generation is leaving us daily, and within a few years, there will be no more World War II veterans among us. For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, surrounded by WWII vets in the prime of their lives, that is all but unimaginable. That day at lunch, I knew my son was encountering American history, the rare chance to meet an American hero, a WWII U.S. Navy fighter ace. I was grateful to Whitey Feightner then, and I’m more grateful to him now, for his life and service. RIP.