When the March 4, 1943 edition of The Mountain Eagle hit the streets, many Letcher Countians began learning for the first time about the outstanding military career of then-U.S. Army Air Forces Maj. Narce Whitaker, a highly-decorated pilot in World War II.
Whitaker lived at Mill Branch at Roxana and attended the Stuart Robinson School at Blackey. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flying cadet in June 1938.
The first notice of Whitaker’s achievements appeared in that March 4 edition and was written by a “double first cousin” who wasn’t identified. The account the cousin wrote was largely a combination of clips that had appeared in Louisville’s morning paper, The Courier-Journal, and its afternoon counterpart, The Louisville Times.
Following is some of what the cousin wrote:
“The ‘morgue,’ or library, of the Courier-Journal and Times is accumulating quite a voluminous record of the achievements of Narce Whitaker, now a major in the Army Air Forces on active duty in the Solomon Islands.
“… The first clipping about Maj. Whitaker is dated January 30, 1939 and says the ‘intricacies of the maze of instruments on the basic training airplanes at Randolph Field, the ‘West Point of the Air,’ are rapidly being mastered by Flying Cadet Narce Whitaker, Roxana.’
“[An October 1942] clipping tells of the gathering of Japanese Naval forces in September for the first effort by the Japanese to recapture Guadalcanal from the U. S. Marines. Airmen in Flying Fortresses (Boeing B-17 bombers) sighted two Japanese fleets.
“[A] clipping from the Louisville Times of October 17, 1942 says: ‘The pilot of the first bomber, Capt. Narce Whitaker, of Roxana, Letcher County, Ky., said the group he saw was headed into a rough weather strip. ‘Clouds would have forced us down so low we would have been an easy target for the Japs,’ Captain Whitaker said.’
“Another dispatch dated last October 12  describes conditions under which Narce and his mates fought on Guadalcanal, a mountainous island where neighbor feasted on neighbor until modern blitz warfare drove the cannibals to the high hills. This clipping tells how another bomber pilot entered the mess tent, slapped Major Whitaker on the back and said: ‘Hey, Whit, heard you smacked 13 Jap Zeros with two bombs at Buka today. How could you tell there were 13?’
“Whitaker swallowed a hunk of salmon and shot back: ‘Counted the wheels and divided by two.’
“Apparently a large number of us mountaineers can proudly ‘claim kin’ with Maj. Whitaker. His father, Squire Whitaker, is the son of Moses Haydon ‘Little Mose’ and Nancy Jane Caudill Whitaker. Jane was the daughter of ‘Stiller Bill’ Caudill. Narce ‘s mother was Ida Hogg.”
Receives most medals of any Kentuckian
Six months after the March 1943 article appeared, the September 2, 1943 edition of The Eagle carried a report released by U.S. Army Headquarters in the South Pacific acknowledging Maj. Whitaker for becoming the most decorated Kentuckian who fought in the South Pacific in World War II.
Here is what that report said:
“A total of 56 awards had been given to 35 Kentuckians up to July 19, 1943 by Lt. Gen. Millard F. Harmon, commanding U.S. Army forces in the South Pacific.
“[The] most decorated Kentuckian is Maj. Narce Whitaker of Roxana, formerly a 13th Air Force bomber pilot, with seven awards. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross with an Oak Leaf Cluster in July after his return to the states. Previously Maj. Whitaker had been given the Silver Star, the Air Medal, and three Oak Leaf Clusters.
“This Kentucky pilot was one of the pioneer army aviators of the South Pacific. His awards cover his activities from February 13, 1942, to February 5, 1943.
“One of the Oak Leaf Clusters was for an attack on a Japanese naval force near Savo Island last November 13 when a number of damaging hits were scored on a battleship.
“Maj. Whitaker won the Silver Star when his Flying Fortress shot down several Zeros [Japanese military aircraft] on December 10, 1942. The Air Medal was given after he had been flight leader in a bombing raid on Buka airfield October 12.”
First in Army Air Force to receive four Silver Star medals
On May 29, 1947, The Eagle carried a Army report issued three days earlier announcing that Col. Whitaker, by now a senior pilot, became the first member of the Army Air Force to hold four Silver Star medals when he was presented the third Oak Leaf Cluster to his Silver Star by Lt. Gen. Ira Baker, deputy Army Air Force commander.
The Silver Star is the third-highest decoration for valor awarded to any person in any of the five military branches that make up the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Army said the latest medal was for “gallantry in action over Midway Island from June 3 to to 7, 1942.” The citation said Col. Whitaker, then a captain, demonstrated outstanding courage and proficiency throughout a period of bitter aerial combat with the Japanese.
After receiving his fourth Silver Star, Col. Whitaker, who also was awarded the Legion of Merit, was selected to attend the Air University at Maxwell Field, Alabama, after which he will attend the University of Denver to complete work for the degree of civil engineering.
His hard work leads to job as commander
On September 9, 1954, The Eagle carried a column from W.J. Cooper, superintendent of the Stuart Robinson School, in which Cooper tells of his appreciation for the hard work rank of colonel, showed from an early age while attending school at Stuart Robinson.
Cooper wrote the column after he read in the Courier- Journal that Col. Whitaker had assumed command at Wilkins Air Force Depot Station in northern Ohio in July 1954.
Wrote Supt. Cooper: “Narce graduated from Stuart Robinson at the age of 20 on May 8, 1934, in the upper half of his class, after four years of hard work in school and also hard work on the farm and campus of Stuart Robinson, which was the only means he had of paying his school expenses.
“He not only worked out his own expenses, but by putting in extra time and work after all others had left their jobs and during the summers, he earned a large part of the expenses of his two sisters, Mary Jane and Dana. To get to his work he walked daily between seven and eight miles up and down one of our steep Kentucky mountains. He is undoubtedly one of the best workers and with the very best spirit of any that we have ever had.
“During his four years of stay at Stuart Robinson, never once did I hear him grumble or even hint anything in that direction. He was always so busy and so interested in what he himself was doing that he never had time to compare himself with others or to find fault with others.
“ When the Japanese bombed our fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he was called to that area as a leader of one of the Bomber Squadrons [the 72nd]. He had a fleet of airplanes under his command. It has been said of him, he numbers among those daring and efficient pilots who kept the Japanese away from our western shores.
“When I finished reading the [Courier-Journal] article, I immediately picked up my Kodak and asked Mr. ( Jack) Burkich, our high school principal, to go with me on an important errand. We boarded our car and climbed several hundred feet and down several hundred feet, a distance of about six miles [from Blackey to Tolson], and then up a hollow [Mill Branch] on the roughest one-way road that I have ever travelled for another distance of about two miles.
“… Needless to say we are proud of Narce, and no doubt those who read this story and who have had a part in contributing to our work scholarship fund will also feel a bit proud at having made it possible for him to go to school here.”
Col. Whitaker died in November 1994. His brother Neldon, who also served in the Army during World War II, died in February 2004 at age 92.
On February 12, 1956, the Whitaker family suffered a tragedy when the younger brother of Narce and Neldon was killed in a car wreck on his way home to Letcher County from Dayton, Ohio.
Kelly Reed Whitaker, 23, died just a few hours he finished his tour of duty with the Air Force. He had been stationed at Wright-Patterson base at Dayton and was killed when his car plunged over a 25-foot embankment near Hazard. Kelly Whitaker had been returning to his family’s home at Roxana.
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1908
March 9, 1933
News that recently-inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president “within memory” to be served lunch at his desk in the White House while he was busily working on his banking program and preparing for Thursday’s extra session of Congress led Mountain Eagle editor Nehemiah M. Webb to remark, “Reminds us of the old grubbing and rail splitting days.”
Speaking of the new president in a separate editorial, editor Webb says: “Roosevelt’s triumphal march to the Capitol last week is one of the high spots in our national life. … Never has there been such a cry for action and never has a man appeared on the decks better fitted and better equipped to handle a difficult task.”
Former Jenkins Police Chief Sam Privitt was arrested Saturday night after he shot and killed Charlie Chapman, a marred man about 30, during a “difficulty” in which several men were engaged in drinking.
The Johnson Funeral Home announces its opening in downtown Whitesburg in the Dr. Bentley property just off Main Street. Mr. D.F. Burke, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, will have his residence upstairs in the funeral home.
The Taxpayers’ League of Letcher County meets and adopts a resolution demanding “a flat blanket reduction of every assessment on real estate in Letcher County.” The resolution, introduced by Dr. B.F. Wright, says there is no justification for the present unfair, unjust, inequitable, outrageous assessments on our properties. Other counties are lowering their assessments but Letcher holds to the old, outworn, inflated values to values placed on our properties years before the crashing panic struck us.”
Typhoid fever has claimed the life of Lawton Hylton, a native of Cody in Knott County who held the position of assistant locomotive engineer and mechanic at the Starling Corporation of Kingscreek.
At the request of citizens who live there, the Whitesburg City Council has adopted an ordinance striking a portion of the Lewis Addition of West Whitesburg from the city limits. The ordinance is signed by Mayor Emory L. Frazier.
March 4, 1943
The “first full-time lady operator for a filling station” in Letcher County has been hired. She is Miss Charlcie Frazier of Smoot Creek, and was hired by D.W. Little, owner of the Gulf Filling Station in Whitesburg and distributor for Gulf products. She has been trained by a specialist who trains women workers to fill the shortage caused by so many man being called into service, and will soon be wearing Gulf’s navy blue uniform with orange trimming.
The Bentley Theater in Neon announces that “all boys and men in the service of their country” will be admitted to movies for 11 cents. Other patrons pay up to 30 cents.
Sgt. William Kenton Sturgill of Whitesburg, a man referred to by one Army publication as a “man amongst men; a soldier among soldiers,” died February 25 in an Army Air Force hospital in Kearns, Utah of an enlarged heart and pneumonia. Sturgill, 23, volunteered his service seven days after Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and was advancing rapidly. At the time of his death, he had been training new soldiers for battle. “His success in promotion and production of well trained men was primarily due to his leadership and the respect, confidence, and whole hearted cooperation which he inspired in his men,” the Army publication said.
Former Mayking mine operator Asa Brooks Ewen died Monday morning in the Martin General Hospital. Death was attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Ewens, 60, lived in Whitesburg and worked at Mayking for 17 years before moving to Pike County.
Robert Preston, a sophomore in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences, is a member of UK’s debate team and manager of UK’s “Best Band in Dixie.” He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Clell Preston of Seco.
“So many of our young boys are leaving for the Army, but they are brave and proud to go,” writes Daisy C. Halcomb in her column “Caudill and Sandlick News.”
“You Can Control — You Can’t Prohibit,” proclaims an advertisement by the Kentucky Distillers Association. The Association says criticizes Letcher County’s planned localoption election because it will be held “while our boys are not here to vote for what they want.”
U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Mack Childers of McRoberts was buried with full military honors after drowning in the field somewhere in the South Pacific on January 11, 1943. Childers, 23, was born in Carbon Hill, Alabama, but moved to Letcher County at age 11 after his father was hired to be a foreman at Consolidation Coal Company. A 1940 graduate of Jenkins High School, he later attended Kentucky State Teachers College at Richmond, where he was circulation manager of The Quadrangle, a cheerleader, and a student in R.O.T.C. He enlisted in the Marines on June 4, 1942.
March 5, 1953
Whitesburg’s new radio station, WTCW, announces that University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp will serve as color commentator to play-by-play J.B. Faulconer for the all 16 games of the Kentucky State High School Basketball Tournament to be held March 18-21. WTCW is one of 28 station members of the Ashland-Aetna Oil Sports Network, which is sponsoring the broadcast.
Whitesburg Mayor Arthur T. Banks announced this week that the 100-bed “Whitesburg Community Hospital” will be built at a site to be determined soon. The mayor said construction will start in June.
Attorney Harry Caudill says the recount of ballots for two seats on the Letcher County School Board will begin Friday morning at 8:30. The Kentucky Court of Appeals granted the recounts to Goebel Adams and Ben Brown.
In a letter to the editor, Mountain Eagle reader John Lucas calls on officials to take advantage of Letcher County’s abundant timber supply to recruit a furniture factory. Lucas said the county also has enough hard workers to staff a “foundry” that could make small parts for companies such as Maytag. He said the county should also develop tourism through its system of caves and with attractions such as the Bull Hole at the head of Pert Creek.
The Kingdom Come High School senior play, a threehour comedy entitled “The Angel Brats,” was successfully performed in front of a packed house on Friday, March 1. By popular demand and to accommodate those who couldn’t be admitted to the first showing, an encore performance will be given on Monday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m. (CST). Admission is 40 cents for students, 60 cents for adults.
M.E. Prunty of Jenkins, safety director at Consolidation Coal Co., was elected president of the Big Sandy-Elkhorn Coal Mining Institure at a dinner meeting at Wheelwright last week. James Fleming, director of safety for Elkhorn Coal Corp. of Fleming, was elected second vice-president. B.F. Gish of Seco and Seth Kegan of Jenkins were named to the Institute’s board of directors.
Whitesburg attorney Stephen Combs Jr., attorney for the Pine Mountain Game Preserve, reports that all deeds have not been cleared up and property paid for.
March 7, 1963
The Letcher County Fiscal Court has voted to send County Judge James Caudill to Frankfort to seek assistance from the state highway department. Caudill told the fiscal court that the hard freezes during the winter have been the worst since 1917, and caused severe damage to roads.
The University of Kentucky is seeking a site for a proposed community college to be located in the Blackey- Hazard area.
”Lad A Dog” and “Merrill’s Marauders” starring Jeff Chandler are playing at the Alene Theater in Whitesburg.
The Army Corps of Engineers has set a meeting to discuss plans for the proposed Carr’s Fork Dam.
March 8, 1973
State Department of Labor officials say that as much as $20.5 million may have been paid out for wrongful black lung claims during the previous four years. A Mountain Eagle editorial says, “We have no argument with (Labor Commissioner James R. Yocum) if what he intends to do is take away benefits from those who have never worked in a coal mine. But it will be to the undying dishonor of the Ford administration if Mr. Yocum does, in fact, do in the black lung program. It must not be permitted to happen.”
Linefork correspondent Thelma N. Cornett has returned home after spending four weeks visiting family. She wrote, “Home had never looked so good to me.”
Funeral services were held for Dr. Bert Clarence Bach, 91. Dr. Bach was born in Breathitt County, and was graduated from the Medical College at the University of Louisville in 1910. In 1912 he moved to Whitesburg where he practiced medicine for 58 years until his retirement in 1970.
The Whitesburg Yellowjackets defeated the Letcher Eagles to win the 53rd District championship. The game was played at the new Jenkins gymnasium.
March 10, 1983
The Jenkins City Council told Beth-Elkhorn Coal Corp. it will take action to halt coal truck traffic on Pine Lane at Dunham unless the company takes the necessary action to satisfy complaints from residents along the street. Residents complain that children have not been able to play outside since the coal trucks began using the street. There are also complaints about severe problems with mud and dust.
School bus drivers are seeking a pay increase from the Letcher County Board of Education.
The 1976 Scotia Mine disaster, which killed 26 persons, is remembered in a poem by retired Scotia miner Pat Pate. The poem ends with these lines: “Coal miners will work. Coal miners will die; And as in the past, We all wonder why.”
Nineteen felony indictments have been returned against 27 persons by the Letcher County Grand Jury.
March 10, 1993
Tiffiney Bentley, a student at Martha Jane Potter Elementary School, took first place in a county spelling competition. Kristi Holcomb, a Beckham Bates Elementary School student, finished second.
Blackey residents turned back an attempt to call a special election to determine whether the town should remain a “city” under Kentucky law. Residents who want a public water system convinced neighbors to remove their signatures from a petition that could have meant the demise of the city and the water project.
South East Coal Company has applied for a permit to mine beneath Lilley Cornett Woods, causing Kentucky Heartwood, a citizens’ group, to express concern. Lilley Cornett Woods is one of the last remaining old growth forests in Kentucky.
March 12, 2003
The Letcher Fiscal Court reversed course this week and tabled two proposed ordinances that would grant permits for overweight trucks and for encroachments onto the county rights-of-way. Magistrates said that the ordinances would hurt too many local people.
Also at the fiscal court meeting, the Letcher County Parks and Recreation Board asked that the court consider building a $4 million to $6 million recreation center with indoor swimming pool, basketball courts, walking track, racquetball courts, tennis courts and other facilities.
The federal government would take over the testing of dust levels in coal mines under a proposal by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Mine operators currently collect most dust samples, while MSHA inspectors periodically check their accuracy..
An overflow at a mine pond in Pike County has sent about 20,000 gallons of a “gooey” coal material into a tributary of the Tug Fork River.