Edgar M. Wittan
By Joseph A. Moller
390th Bomb Group
No anthology of the 390th Bomb Group would be complete without acknowledging the debt the Group owes to the man who was its first commander - who activated it, trained it, took it overseas, commanded it during its first eight months of combat and who, until he was killed on 13 September 1944, maintained a strong and abiding interest in the Group's activities and its welfare.
A few days after Colonel Wittan was assigned to command the 13th Combat Wing, he sent for me. I had been flying with the 95th Bomb Group, first as a GI pilot with a pick-up crew, and later as an air leader. The mere fact that he just didn't have me assigned to the 13th Wing, which he could well have done, indicated his consideration for those under his command. When I reported to him I found he wanted to know how I would feel about becoming part of the 13th Wing staff and whether I thought I could become an enthusiastic member of his team.
The function of the 13th Wing, which consisted of the 95th, the 100th and the 390th Groups, was not to deal with any administrative problems, but confined its work to all of those things affecting the combat operations of the three groups making up the 13th Wing. During our discussion it developed that all of the top personnel except Colonel Wittan were no longer combat operational, having finished their combat tours. That meant that he was the only available combat leader in the 13th Wing and he welcomed another qualified air leader and wanted me to be, except on specific occasions, the 13th Wing Combat Air Leader.
I believe that in the first fifteen minutes of that interview, Ed Wittan and I had a meeting of the minds - though the meeting lasted for an hour or two. I welcomed the Wing assignment.
As he had dealt with me, so had he dealt with all those who came under his command. He was thoughtful, considerate and understanding. However, if the occasion demanded, he could be stern and could deal forthrightly with any situation that arose.
In the very few days he was there, Colonel Wittan had created a tightly knit group of some six officers together with the necessary airman to feed, house and do necessary chores for the Wing War Room. The staff reflected the respect and admiration we all felt for the "boss." He knew his job and he helped us with ours. In addition, at least several times a week, Ed found time for quite lengthy sessions with me during which we would discuss every aspect of the air war as we were fighting it. I was privileged to have these opportunities to learn how his sharp mind worked. I dare say, he was also checking on me when he assigned me to take command of the 390th Group. Unlike my assignment to Wing from the 95th, he had my orders cut and given to me shortly after he left for an afternoon and evening of meetings at 3rd Division Headquarters. This gave me no opportunity to talk it over with him, and he knew I needed none.
Having set the groundwork, so to speak, as to why I feel particularly qualified to write about Ed Wittan as a man, as an airman and as a commander, I shall start with a few statistics.
Edgar M. Wittan was born on 26 November 1910, the son of Mr. & Mrs. David Wittan, in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Staunton Military Academy in 1928, and took his B.S. degree at the University of Pittsburgh. He was commissioned in the Air Corps Reserve 4 June 1932, and immediately entered flying training, completing primary and advanced at Kelly and Randolph Fields, Texas. He won his wings in early 1933.
After some five years in the Reserve, he returned to service as a Major on 1 October 1938. He served with the Neutrality Patrol off the Florida coast. After Pearl Harbor he joined the first AAF tactical unit to set up operations in Newfoundland where he won his senior pilot's wings in 1942, and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
In February 1943, he was assigned to activate, command and train the 390th Bombardment Group (H) which he took overseas and into combat until 17 April 1944, when he was selected to command the 13th Bombardment Wing.
At times he would attend mission briefings for each group in the 13th Wing. On 12 September 1944, he came down to the 390th fairly early in the evening just as the orders for the mission on the next day began to come into the War Room. Ed and I talked in the War Room for some time and when time came for breakfast, we had breakfast together.
While sitting and listening to the briefing, I quietly asked him if he wanted to say a few words. Strangely, I thought, he declined, so when I spoke during my portion of the briefing I simply introduced him, which he graciously acknowledged.
I had decided to monitor the mission during the assembly over England and to coast-out so I had had a B-17 set up to take of with the mission. After briefing, he took me to the hardstand where my airplane was. Again we talked until about time to start engines, when he stepped to his car to drive, I thought, back to Wing headquarters. Note that we had both been up all night which was not too unusual.
I took off with the mission and watched the boys getting into Group formation, which was being led by Lt. Col. William (Bill) Jones. I followed the bomber stream to just beyond the coast-out point.
Flying above and somewhat to the east of the 390th as it departed the south coast of England at Beachy Head, I saw a P-47 somewhat above and to the west of the bomber stream. The P-47 turned back about the shoreline of the channel. I followed to about mid-channel and then returned to base. After but a few minutes in my office, I went to my quarters and slept until just before the mission returned. After debriefing, I received a call from Colonel Bill Veal (later Major General) asking whether Colonel Wittan was still at the 390th. I told Bill that Ed had left when the mission took off, but that I thought it was the 13th Wing P-47, a war-weary craft which was used for monitoring formations since it had no fighter group markings. Bill got busy, found that Ed had taken off in the Wing P-47 and had not returned. Bill and I talked several times. We both hoped Ed had landed on some other base and would check in before long.
I should judge it was about midnight when Bill again called and told me there was a report that a P-47 had crashed and the pilot was killed either in Wales or near Wales. I checked weather which d been deteriorating and found that portion of England and Wales was zero zero.
Bill called a little later and said it was Ed's P-47 and that Ed had been killed. It was on 13th September 1944 that he died while flying and checking his three groups as they left England to attack their assigned target.
He was buried in Cambridge Cemetery - an American cemetery - on 15 September 194, with Major General Earl Partridge (later General), the 13th Wing Staff and myself in attendance.
Those who served with Colonel Wittan will always remember him as an outstanding leader on the ground and in the air. His insistence on tight formation flying not only gave a closely knit bomb pattern on the target, but provided a maximum of fire power against enemy fighters.
No one will ever know how many lives and planes came home because of his wise and careful leadership. We were all better combat people for having served with him and under his command. He will always be remembered as a warm and understanding friend.
Copyright © 1997 by The 390th Memorial Museum Foundation