LIMA — With frequent forays into the ocean off Hawaii, the young pilots stationed in Hawaii in the summer of 1942 began taking on deep suntans — except for Ensign Edward L. Feightner, who, author Peter B. Mersky wrote “baked to a lobster red at times.”
Which did not escape the attention of Lt. Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, Feightner’s commanding officer. “Almost inevitably,” Mersky noted, “O’Hare saddled his young pilot with the nickname ‘Whitey.’” O’Hare was the Navy’s first flying ace, an early hero of World War II and a Medal of Honor recipient. When Chicago opened its new airport in 1944, it was named after O’Hare, who had been killed in combat the year before.
As for Feightner, tanning was about the only thing the Elida native did not do well during his 34-year career in the Navy.
During World War II, Feightner shot down nine Japanese planes, then played a prominent role in the testing and development of post-war Navy jets. In the early 1950s, he was a member of the Navy’s Blue Angels, who thrilled crowds at air shows with their close formation flying and acrobatics.
Mersky in his book “Whitey: The Story of Rear Admiral E.L. Feightner, A Navy Fighter Ace” described him as “a supreme example of what writer and TV reporter Tom Brokaw called ‘The Greatest Generation,’ a group of Americans, fast leaving us, who stood up when called to defend their country and the free world when it was at its greatest peril.” Feightner left us on April 1, dying at the age of 100 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. His passing was noted by the New York Times.
Edward Lewis Feightner was born on Oct. 14, 1919, in Lima, the son of Amos E. and Mary S. Roth Feightner and grew up on a farm in the Elida area. He had three sisters, Virginia, Marian and Eleanor, all of whom enjoyed playing basketball and were taller than their brother, who stood only five feet one inch in high school at Elida.
He excelled at athletics and at one time was scouted by the St. Louis Browns (today’s Baltimore Orioles). He also was a skilled hunter, an activity helped by his keen 20/15 eyesight. After graduating from high school in 1937 as class president and valedictorian, Feightner accepted a scholarship to Findlay College, where he was a member of the wrestling team — adding seven inches of height in his first year — while earning double bachelor of science degrees in chemistry and math.
Although he worked part-time as a chemist at a Findlay sugar beet factory, Feightner’s future was up in the air, decided by a chance encounter with Mike Murphy, a captain in the Army Reserves, who operated the airport near Findlay College and was chief pilot for the Ohio Oil Co. (now Marathon Oil). Murphy offered Feightner a ride in his Ford Trimotor aircraft and Feightner accepted, although, as Mersky wrote, Murphy had a reputation as “something of a wild man.” Feightner wound up flying the plane for the better part of four hours.
“Thereafter, his studies and schedule permitting, Edward flew with Murphy every chance he got, usually at night,” Mersky wrote. In 1939, he started flying in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, created to provide a large pool of civilian pilots to serve as a source of military pilots if needed.
As Feightner approached graduation in 1941 and the U.S. edged closer to involvement in World War II. Feightner decided to join the military. “One day in April 1941, he was at the airport near the Findlay campus with a fellow flight student when he was impressed by a scene that sold him on naval aviation,” the Times wrote.
“I had already signed up for the Army Air Corps, and they had a little wait before we could go in,” Feightner recalled in an interview for the Virginia Military Institute in 2005 reprinted in the Times. “One day an airplane landed at the airport and a guy walked into the hangar wearing Navy whites, and a yellow convertible comes screeching around the hangar and a blonde jumps out and gives him a big smooch, and off they went.”
Seeing how captivated Feightner and his friend were, the instructor suggested they check out the Navy air training center in Michigan. “We went up there and found out what the Navy stuff was all about and they said, ‘Hey, we’ll take you this afternoon.’ So, we signed up,” Feightner said in the interview.
The pair left for the Navy two hours after graduating from Findlay in June 1941. After training in Corpus Christi, Texas, Feightner eventually joined O’Hare’s VF-3 group in Hawaii. O’Hare taught his men valuable lessons about aerial combat, lessons Feightner would soon employ for real.
In the autumn of 1942, Feightner was transferred to VF-10, known as “The Grim Reapers,” aboard the carrier USS Enterprise, which on Oct. 16, 1942, sailed for the South Pacific and the war. Joining Feightner in VF-10 was Lieutenant junior grade John Leppla, a 1934 graduate of South High School, who by then had been credited with shooting down as many as four Japanese planes, although postwar scrutiny eventually pared the number to one.
In late October 1942, during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands southeast of Guadalcanal, Feightner shot down his first enemy plane, a dive bomber attacking the carrier USS Hornet. Feightner, however, ran out of fuel and was forced to make a desperate landing on the Enterprise, which itself had been savaged by Japanese aircraft. “I got down to the hangar deck,” Feightner recalled. “I was wading around in water and fuel and dead bodies.”
Leppla did not survive the battle. He was seen to parachute from his stricken plane, but his chute streamed and did not fully deploy. He was declared missing in action and presumed dead. “The night before, he had written a letter home, to be sent if he did not return the next day,” Mersky wrote.
Feightner, meanwhile, would go on to serve on the USS Yorktown, the USS Intrepid and the USS Bunker Hill. “He downed three torpedo bombers off Rennell Island on Jan. 30, 1943, and became an ace (a pilot with at least five kills) when he shot down a Zero fighter off the Palau Island chain in March 1944,” the Times wrote. “He shot down another Zero off Truk in April 1944 and downed three Zeros off Formosa (now Taiwan) on Oct. 12, 1944.”
“After the war,” The Lima News wrote April 5, “Feightner tested aircraft and trained pilots to transition from propeller-driven aircraft to jets. He became a member of the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration team, flying the lead ‘solo’ position. He was assigned to several of the Navy’s most secret projects at Patuxent River, Maryland. He flew and helped develop legendary fighters such as the F-7U Cutlass, P-9F Banshee and the attack aircraft AD Skyraider.”
He also got married. In August 1948 in Long Beach, California, Feightner wed Violet Beatrice Volz, the daughter of an admiral. The couple had no children.
In the mid-1960s, he served as the commanding officer of the USS Chikaskia and the USS Okinawa. “He was promoted to rear admiral in 1970 and retired four years later, becoming a corporate consultant to the Navy,” the Times wrote.
Feightner also spent several decades speaking at events and engagements. After his wife’s death in 2015, he relocated from Washington, D.C., to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he stayed with nephew Jim McBride and his wife.
On his 97th birthday, on Oct. 14, 2016, Feightner took the controls one last time during a flight over Coeur d’Alene. “He was quite smooth on the controls, really remarkable considering how little he has flown in the last 50 years,” his nephew told the News.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.