By Debra A. Parker
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — James L. Whited wasn’t born in Norman, but in his heart he was a son of Oklahoma.
Norman was where he grew up and went to school, graduating from Norman High. It was home to his parents; later, only his mother and sister remained.
He may have been born near Detroit, but Norman is where he called home, so much so that this is where he settled his family as he answered his country’s call to arms.
On Tuesday, Army Maj. James Lafayette Whited came home to Norman one last time.
His family and members of the Patriot Guard were on hand at Will Rogers Airport to escort the major’s casket to Primrose Funeral Service.
He will be buried at 10:30 a.m. Friday with full military honors.
After 46 years, his life’s journey will come full circle.
Annie grew up in Florida. She was a young woman in her early 20s when she met James Whited in 1945.
He had been an enlisted man in World War II, serving as a tailgunner on a B24. He was part of a crew flying the supply line, known as The Hump, in Burma. He was assigned to the 308th Bombardment Group whose missions served to disrupt Japanese supply lines in the South China Sea area. Those runs included the Gulf of Tonkin, on Vietnam’s eastern coast, and served as his introduction to Southeast Asia.
But, this was autumn and the war had been over since spring. Other wars were still to come.
Whited had just mustered out of active duty and was about to return to Oklahoma and join the family construction business, but first, he and Annie married.
He brought her home to his parents, Paul and Cora Whited. For the next five years, the young couple built a life in Oklahoma.
Over the years, James had developed a love of flying and graduated from the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa.
“Oh, yes, he loved to fly,” Annie Whited, who still resides in Norman, said Tuesday.
The military’s call was strong, and in 1948, Whited entered the Reserves.
“Dad served with the Thunderbirds,” said son James P. Whited of St. Leonard, Md. “He applied for officer candidate school. When he was called back up, he went to OCS and was promoted.”
Whited received his commission in 1951 and was stationed in Germany.
In the late 1950s, he was sent to Korea. While there, his family stayed stateside in Dothan, Ala.
“We lived in Alabama nine years,” the younger Whited said.
In 1956, Whited was promoted to captain and then to major in 1962.
It was that last promotion that ultimately led to a fateful day over Laos.
Dothan, Ala., 1962
While serving in Alabama, Whited was assigned to the OV1-Mohawk program. The jet had just been released to the Army for service.
Whited worked with the OV-1 at the Army Aviation school at Fort Rucker, Ala.
“My father was in this unit in 1962/63,” Whited said. “This was when the OV-1 was transferred from the builder to the Army to enter service. There were a number of serious accidents, well crashes, early on in the program and three or four fatal crashes occurred.”
While at Fort Rucker, Whited was gaining proficiency with the new aircraft.
“He had been there six to eight weeks, training in the co-pilot seat while he got up to speed,” his son said. “Because of the problems they had with the plane, they needed pilots familiar with the OV-1 in Vietnam. So, he was sent to Vietnam.”
Maj. Whited was a family man in his 40s approaching 20 years in the service. He was about due for military retirement.
“I’m not sure he was given a choice,” James Whited said. “There was some thought of staying in the service and making lieutenant colonel, which would mean taking the assignment in Vietnam, then retiring. But, I’m not sure he was given a choice.”
Once again, the elder Whited brought his family home to Norman.
Maj. Whited deployed to Vietnam.
“We never saw him again,” his widow said Tuesday.
Government documents indicate he was flying a reconnaissance mission over enemy territory in Vietnam on Nov. 19, 1966, when his Mohawk aircraft crashed.
“It was ruled a catastrophic accident,” James Whited said Tuesday. “He was co-pilot and they were making a run from Vietnam to Thailand over Laos. They couldn’t engage the enemy over Laos, so they just looked.
“They were watching the Ho Chi Min Trail. There were two planes on the mission, one flying high the other flying low over the tree tops in the valley.
“Apparently, Dad’s plane was coming up out of the valley, veered a little to the left and clipped a tree top. There are some really tall trees there.
“The plane then nosed toward the ground and erupted into a giant fireball on impact. That’s what they reported seeing from the other plane.
“They were just looking. Something we do with drones today. They learned lessons about working in harsh condititions from cases like Dad’s.”
Annie Whited never remarried and has remained in Norman. In fact, it was through a friendship made while stationed in Dothan that led to the purchase of her home in Norman.
On Sunday, Annie will turn 90 and she admits her memories of her husband have faded a bit.
“It’s been too many years,” Annie Whited said Tuesday. “The kids remember, though. James was 20, and Carolyn was 17.”
The younger James Whited grew up, went to school at the University of Oklahoma and eventually adopted a nomadic life while climbing the ranks at IBM. Carolyn married Navy veteran Ben WIllige two years after she lost her father. The couple have built their life in Norman.
While their memories of their father are different, both children agree that he was a man of conviction and independent thought.
“I will always remember that he was adamant about the fact that I go to church every Sunday,” Carolyn Willige said. “That’s why I have such a loving relationship with my Savior.
“Because of that relationship, I have such a beautiful, beautiful life,” she said. “I owe him the thanks for that.”
Ben Willige said he never got to meet his father-in-law in person.
“But, I’ve read so much about him, pouring over all these military records that I feel like I know him,” Ben Willige said. “Here’s something I think is sort of remarkable.
“During World War II he was flying missions over the Gulf of Tonkin. That’s where his military career began: Vietnam,” he said. “Then 20 years later, he’s in Vietnam again and that’s where his service ended.
“He came full circle with his military career.”
Friday, Nov. 2, 2012
As the Patriot Guard stands in silent tribute, friends and family will gather at 10:30 a.m. Friday to render final honors to a son of Oklahoma.
With echoes of a rifle salute and the bugler sounding taps, Army Maj. James Lafayette Whited will be laid to rest in the grave that has borne his headstone since a memorial service in December 1966.
“You know, we came to the cemetery on Memorial Day and brought Mother,” son James Whited said. “She said recently, ‘At least now we won’t go to an empty grave.’”
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