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Ashlanders honored for WW II heroic service

Editor's note: This is the 13th installment of a series of stories about Ashland residents who served during World War II. The final story publishes Wednesday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

The list of Ashlanders recognized for their military accomplishments during World War II was extensive. They were decorated with Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Oak Leaf Clusters, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals, all for heroic, meritorious achievement, gallantry in action or non-combat heroism.

Col. William B. Westfall, an Ashland High graduate and later, the student body president at SOCE (Southern Oregon College of Education), safely flew more than 50 missions over “the Hump” to deliver supplies and personnel to active combat zones. The Hump was a 525-mile route across the eastern Himalayas and the forests of Burma flown by the Air Transport Command, moving cargo to China from India. Its operational losses were higher than those of any other noncombatant aviation unit in World War II and exceeded those of many combat units.

Also flying the Hump where Japanese interception and attack was probable and expected was co-pilot First Lt. Ralph L. Riesberg of Iowa Street. The citation with his Air Medal read: “Flying at night as well as by day, at high altitudes over impassable mountainous terrain through areas characterized by extremely treacherous weather conditions necessitating long periods of operation on instruments, requiring courageous and superior performance of his duties to overcome, he accomplished all his missions with distinction.”

First Lt. George T. Langford, whose family lived on Holly Street, flew 29 missions over Germany and France during World War II from October 1943 to August 1944, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. He later became a B-29 Superfortress instructor and was discharged from the military as a captain in December 1946.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate First Class, USNR James D. Whittinghill, a gunner with Air Group 13 in an Avenger torpedo bomber, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill. Based off the USS Franklin (CV-13), his squadron hit Manila Bay on October 19, 1944, damaging ships and boats, destroying a floating dry dock, and shooting down 11 Japanese planes. James’s aircraft, under constant attack by enemy fighters and intense anti-aircraft fire, was downed the next day, and he and his two crew members were killed. His body was never recovered.

James’ award read that he had participated in “numerous strikes against heavily defended Japanese held bases in the vicinity of the Volcano and Caroline Islands in the Central Pacific. On 13 September 1944, he accurately strafed shore installations in the face of enemy gunfire. His coolness, skill, and courage were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

First Lt. Jack M. Bishop, a B-24 bombardier who worked as a clerk at J.C. Penney’s in Ashland prior to enlisting, flew 25 missions, received the Distinguished Flying Cross and returned home to serve in the Korean War. And Col. Jack W. Whitsett with the 13th Air Force received an Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of an additional Air Medal for his service piloting a P-51 Mustang, a long-range, single-seat fighter and fighter bomber, in the Pacific Theater. Jack continue his career in the Armed Forces after World War II and retired in 1964.

Kenneth B. Hobson from Ashland High’s Class of 1925 became a top-rated command pilot who, over the course of highly-decorated career, served on 25 aerial combat missions totaling 100 combat flying hours in the Southwest Pacific. Gen. Hobson became commander of the Air Force Logistics Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, a position which he held until his retirement in 1967. Among his awards and decorations were the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

Ashland’s own George R. Jensen, who went by Bob, had a passion for aviation that began as a teenager while watching Tex Rankin, one of the most famous stunt pilots of the 1930s, perform at the Medford Air Show. After graduating with Ashland High’s Class of 1938, Bob enrolled in SOCE where he was part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Six months after Pearl Harbor, Bob was accepted into the Army Air Corps as a flight cadet. As a second lieutenant, he flew a total of 101 missions into Italy, France and Germany as both wingman and flight lead — this during a time when only half of the pilots in his unit survived their assignment. He was awarded five Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

At the age of 45, Bob re-qualified to renew his pilot license and rented a stunt plane at the Ashland Airport to practice aerobatics in the morning before he had to be at his work. Forty years later, Bob was invited to fly in a Stearman biplane, a World War II military training aircraft, with Ashland Mayor Alan DeBoer. A crowd gathered as they performed a series of loops and rolls in the plane they both knew and loved so well.

Bob passed away on June 2, 2015, and fittingly, his memorial service was held on Flag Day.

On Wednesday, Veterans Day: Remembering the Fallen.