Arguably, no figure looms larger in the history of the Navy in Chicago than Vice Adm. Richard Whitehead. It was VADM Whitehead who, in 1941, as aviation officer at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, took up the challenge of converting two Great Lakes excursion steamers into makeshift aircraft carriers for training WWII aviators. The program involved more than 300 takeoffs and landings a day, with nearly 18,000 pilots and 40,000 flight deck personnel trained from 1942 through 1945, leading to dramatic victories in the Pacific Theater.
To get a modern-day perspective on this amazing story, we reached out to his grand-nephew, Jeffrey L. Whitehead, who attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer in 1987 and retired after more than 20 years of service in 1994.
Jeffrey, who served as served as an instructor at the Nuclear Power Training Unit and now works as a Health Physics Consultant, told us “The contribution of visionary leadership the likes of Vice Adm. Richard Whitehead can’t be overstated. Vice Adm. Whitehead’s innovation and forward thinking resulted in an improvement in aviation training that likely shortened the war in the Pacific and saved countless lives. His genius and drive should be an inspiration to the present and future generations.”
As decades pass and WWII veterans pass on, memories fade and eventually generations of Americans forget the contributions our forebears made in support of the freedoms we enjoy today.
We asked Jeffrey why he felt it was so important to tell and preserve the history of what happened at Navy Pier. He offered a concise history: "Chicago’s Navy Pier, along with the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and USS Sable (IX-81), provided an immensely important service to the U.S. Navy and to the nation during WWII. When the fleet was most in need of highly trained naval aviators, landing signal officers, carrier deck personnel, and technicians, Chicago's Navy Pier and the training carriers met that need. The 17,000-plus carrier pilots, along with the host of others trained in Chicago, contributed immensely to our victory in World War II.”
"As decades pass and WWII veterans pass on, memories fade and eventually generations of Americans forget the contributions our forebears made in support of the freedoms we enjoy today. Preserving and memorializing the vital naval training efforts in Chicago will serve as a permanent reminder of the sacrifices and successes accomplished by America’s WWII heroes.”
Clearly, Jeffrey honored his grand-uncle’s legacy with his own distinguished naval service.
Jeffrey’s son James continued that tradition by enlisting while a senior in high school and reporting for duty after graduation. James served at the Southeast Regional Calibration Center, then transferred to the USS Samuel B Roberts (FFG-58), making deployments to the Mediterranean Ocean, Indian Ocean, North and South Atlantic. Like his father, James attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer in 2011 and retired from the Navy in 2018 after 20 years of active service.