Robert McWhite Sr. flew 13 bombing missions over Germany during World War II, piloting a strafed and smoking B-17 to safety in England in April 1944. Two weeks later, he was shot down over Germany and herded into a prison camp.
The Wayzata resident earned the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a host of other medals. “He never talked about it until he got into his 80s,” said his son Timothy, “and then he got nostalgic about it.”
McWhite got involved with fellow former POWs, eulogizing many at their funerals. And in the early 2000s he visited Suffolk, the site of his harrowing landing nearly 60 years earlier, connecting with locals who were there on that day.
McWhite, who after the war made a long career in grain trading with the Peavey Co., died last month at age 96.
He was born in Minneapolis, and moved with his family to Chicago, where he graduated from high school. McWhite spent a couple of years in a seminary out east before returning to his hometown. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps the next day.
McWhite learned to fly the B-17, a big four-engine bomber known as the “Flying Fortress.” Based in England with what would become the Eighth Air Force, McWhite was part of the massive U.S. and British bombing campaign over Germany.
In April 1944, McWhite’s plane, nicknamed the “Tom Paine,” was hit by enemy fire over northern Germany. McWhite, in a December interview with the Sun Sailor, said he faced an 800-mile flight back to England with two smoking engines.
“My co-pilot, navigator and bombardier were all hit, and I found out later I was hit but didn’t even know it,” he told the paper. “The instrument panel was in my lap, so no engine instruments, no navigation instruments.”
To complicate matters, four children were on the runway at an emergency airstrip below, taking in the dramatic scene. They started running, and McWhite took evasive action to steer clear. One of the kids, Christopher Elliott, wrote about the experience in an essay that later found its way into a local newspaper.
The article made its way to McWhite. So in 2002 he visited the small airstrip where the crash landing had taken place long ago, meeting with Elliott and others. McWhite and Elliott became friends, visiting each other several times in the ensuing years, McWhite told the Sun Sailor.
On McWhite’s last mission in 1944, his B-17 was shot down over central Germany. He bailed out before the plane crashed, but landed on steel-spiked fence. Injured, he was taken to Stalag Luft III prison camp in Zagan, Poland. (The camp later became well-known as the setting for “The Great Escape,” a 1963 movie).
After a forced march in January 1945 to another prison camp, McWhite was liberated by the U.S. Army not long before the German surrender in May.
When McWhite returned to the U.S., he quickly married his girlfriend, Frances. Their marriage lasted for 72 years, until her death in 2017. McWhite is survived by sons Robert and Timothy; seven grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.