Mystery over former Oamaru pilot solved

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A Wellington woman Geraldine Mason, 93, has sent the Oamaru Mail this article she has written about a former Oamaru man, Les Whitaker, who she would probably have married had he not been killed in World War 2. She met Les through Les’ sister Isabel with whom she worked in Wellington. “I hoped for a few years after the war he would turn up but he didn’t. She married in 1952.

Les Whitaker, at 15, was the youngest pilot in New Zealand. Like his uncle Richard he loved flying.

When his father, Tom Whitaker, was directed to an essential WWII job in Lower Hutt, the family left Oamaru in 1940. A year later Les, by now in the RNZAF, left for overseas. He served in many missions in the Mediterranean and elsewhere and finally in Italy.

On August 21/22 1944, Les, the pilot, aged 28, with a crew of four went missing behind enemy lines while dropping ammunition and supplies to Tito’s men (partisans fighting in the vicinity of Trieste).

His sister Isabel, also in our Air Force worked in records and learned that there was heavy flak that night. The Dakota had probably gone down in the Adriatic Sea. Later, that was the original report received by his parents.

Through the years we all held out hopes that Les would turn up. Mrs Whitaker wrote periodically for further news and always made him a birthday cake on December 13.

At Easter time last year (2013) an amazing turn of events happened. An old friend and wartime colleague I had rung to tell her of another’s death, asked me if I could bear more.

She told me of a letter in the Hutt News from a man in the U.K seeking information on Flying Officer Leslie T. Whitaker, of Lower Hutt. My friend, Jenny Forsyth, would be the only person in Lower Hutt who would recognise that name. I used to read his letters to her as she had a brother flying in Europe. Neither of those young men came back.

In due course I emailed the enquirer (Geoff Elliott) and learned that his uncle had been one of Les’s crew.

He had spent years of research trying to find out what had happened to the Dakota. In 2010, on the internet, he found information from an Italian mountain guide (Tiziano) who had been finding various pieces of a plane on Mt. Sernio.

While climbing up a different, dangerous route he had found the tailpiece bearing the number KG752. He was able to find out the names of the crew and where they came from.

This was a breakthrough for Geoff Elliott, himself a retired RAF man. When I contacted him and was able to give him all the details of the pilot Les Whitaker, he was “over the moon” as he had drawn blanks over the others except of course his uncle.

On August 21, 2013, he travelled to Udine, Italy, hoping to climb Mt Serino along with Tiziano and other guides, to where Tiziano had placed a plaque at the crash scene (at his own expense) bearing the names of the crew.

While up the mountain Geoff Elliott was able to play the Last Post from his cell phone. Later there was a ceremony at the English cemetery where the remains of the crew had been interred in unknown graves.

Their names had been placed officially at Malta among other missing airmen with no known graves. The ceremony at Tavagnacco was attended by the mayor and other officials. The write-up in local papers included photos of Les which I had supplied at Geoff Elliott’s request and one of myself which had been returned with Les’ personal effects.

This year on August 21, seventy years after the event and after one year of trying to get permission to have the names put on the graves at Tavagnacco, the ceremony took place much to the satisfaction of Geoff Elliott and Tiziano Scarsini who had put in so much physical and mental effort.

This story will be of interest to not only any Whitaker relations still living in Oamaru but also for the district’s archives.

(The other crew memebrs who died were co-pilot Flying Officer Maurice Sims, navigator Flying Officer John Walsh, 21, navigator Flying Officer Daniel Christensen, 35, and wireless operator Sergeant Henry Bolt 32.)

PHOTO: SUPPLIED – The photo of Flying officer Leslie Whitaker which he sent to his girlfriend Geraldine Falconbridge.