/ Published September 24, 2015
The colorful career of Rear Adm Edward Lewis Feightner, a great fighter pilot, is the subject of Peter Mersky's biography Whitey: The Story of Rear Admiral E. L. Feightner, A Navy Fighter Ace. Admiral Feightner's time in service covers a significant portion of the history of naval aviation, during which the Navy transitioned from pre-World War II biplanes to some of the fastest and most capable jet aircraft that still serve in military air arms. Just about any aviator would admire the career of someone who was part of a community forged in the heat of aerial combat through four decades, participating in some of the most crucial conflicts that shaped our world. Full of numerous encounters with other notable pilots, Whitey weaves a story that envelopes the reader with the jocular, easygoing, but demanding environment of naval aerial warfare. In this regard, the book does well to use chance encounters with men who would go on to become flag and general officers as a conduit for conveying Admiral Feightner's stellar career as he flew, fought, and became a key proponent in the development of fighter aircraft from World War II through the mid 1970s.
Despite this sterling source material, Mr. Mersky's book presents neither a complete nor cohesive picture of its subject. At 224 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index, it reads more like a casual conversation during which an individual recounts his memories and detours every time a name triggers a specific memory. Mersky never gives the reader enough information to develop a full picture of the man, glossing over his time before entering the military in just four pages and dedicating only five additional pages to his days as a student naval aviator prior to receiving his wings and orders to his first squadron. There is no solid foundation for learning about Ensign Feightner as he begins training to become a fighter ace and an outstanding flag officer. Significant in terms of the scope of time covered but sketchy in personal details, the text examines Admiral Feightner's service in the Pacific theater from the battle of the Philippine Sea through the battle of the Solomons and the end of the war; however, much of it is reserved for the actions of individuals other than Feightner.
The account of his activities after the war also tends to jump around in time. A description of a mishap during the Detroit National Air Races in 1951 suddenly switches to a passage about the Reno National Air Races in 1964 and then to a P-51 Mustang mishap in 2011. Next is a passage about a horrific accident during an air show in June of 1972 when the US Air Force Thunderbirds and US Navy Blue Angels flew F-4s. Again, though, the author offers scant detail about any effect this event had on Admiral Feightner. Also lacking are descriptions of the challenges of life in the military with his wife, Vi, or of raising his nephew Jim McBride. The few sentences and photos of their wedding and of Mr. McBride's commissioning leave the reader wanting more information about the subject's life. This jumping around in time without proper context for doing so confuses readers, depriving them of a good sense of the cohesive roles that Admiral Feightner played in many historical events. It is as if the author sat down with the subject and took voluminous notes but either lost or didn't number them. Mersky expects the reader to know the names, times, and locations that he mentions in passing, assuming that any deficiencies in the book will be offset by our collective memories.
Some sections describe aircraft programs that were not a direct part of Admiral Feightner's history. They appeal to readers' general interest in aviation, but they neither reveal nor describe the man. One section relates in some depth a story about how the admiral worked on various innovative programs, such as one involving an attempt to build a supersonic seaplane-based fighter--the Consolidated XF2Y Sea Dart. Even after addressing a number of situations in which test pilot Feightner cheated death or brought home disabled aircraft against incredible odds, Mersky concludes by merely observing that "Whitey never had a chance to fly these interesting new types" (p. 97), Again, the author does little to fully develop a portrait of the man.
Despite its shortcomings, Whitey is a fascinating book for readers interested in learning about a driving force in the development of Navy fighter aviation and the Pacific theater of aerial warfare. Rather than a riveting and colorful biography of a larger-than-life individual, it hints at the possibility of a much more in-depth and captivating story. Readers leave it with the impression that it could have been part of a more comprehensive effort that chronicled the life of another member of the "greatest generation"--one that revealed the impact of their lives and decisions.
Lt Col Lloyd A. Malone Jr., USAF
603 AOC, Ramstein, Germany
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."