Owen Wheeler grew up in Ceredo and went on to a distinguished military career which lasted more than 20 years, a career that could have ended when his aircraft crashed at sea, or when Japanese forces sunk his ship in the South Pacific, but luck stayed on Wheeler’s side.
He has memories of burning real candles on the family Christmas tree back in Ceredo, of working in his uncle’s garden for $1 a day and of riding a horse three miles to school.
“My father worked at Columbia Gas,” Wheeler said. “Every year the plant had one special day for employees and their families to attend Camden Park. The roller coaster may still look the same, but the real steam-powered train is gone now. They once had a lake with rowboats and a nice swimming pool — they’re gone as well. Things just don’t stay the same for long.”
Wheeler tried high school football, but Friday nights eventually found him watching football games from the bleachers.
It was Wheeler’s grandmother that started his financial career when she gave him a pig that was the runt of the litter.
“From that runt of a pig, I eventually ended up with 20 or so pigs that I would sell for $5 each,” he said. “Paying for a veterinarian would sometimes cut my profits, but I managed to still make a little money.
During the growing season, Wheeler sold produce at the old farmer’s market located along 6th Street in Huntington.
“We would sell vegetables from the back of my father’s Model A Ford truck,” Wheeler said. “Then I would always go to this restaurant across from the Huntington courthouse on 4th Avenue and buy a fish sandwich for a quarter. That was expensive back then, but they were good.”
Wheeler tried a few semesters at Marshall, and then decided to study agriculture at West Virginia University in Morgantown, with about the same results. Finally his father helped him find a federal job at an accounting office in Washington, D.C.
“While in Washington, I attended night classes at George Washington University,” Wheeler said. “When a fellow classmate took me on a ride in a Piper Cub airplane, I was hooked on flying.”
For the next few months, Wheeler took flying lessons at the Congressional Airport in Rockville, Maryland, under the civilian pilot training program which was paid for by the government with an obligation to serve in the military — and the Navy soon called.
Long before Wheeler would ever be awarded his wings and become an ensign in the United States Navy, he went through a lot of training.
The long upward climb to be awarded his wings started at Anacostia Naval Air Station in D.C. This phase began at the grassroots level with basic characteristics of flight, wing lift, flight controls, radio communications, instrumentation, and general preflight inspections.
Next came the Boeing Model 75 Bi-wing Stearman which involved multiple stages of flight at Rodd Field in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was at this stage that Wheeler learned about the consequences of bad judgment in the cockpit when a fellow student was killed.
Wheeler’s training continued on various types of trainer aircraft. Classes continued to become more advanced with different aircraft. Training had now advanced to formation flying, navigation in adverse weather, dropping bombs and guiding torpedoes to a target.
Just before being shipped off to Opa-Locka, Florida, for additional flight training, Wheeler was promoted to the rank of ensign and awarded his wings March 15, 1943.
No sooner was Wheeler finding out where all the area “watering holes” were located, than he was transferred again. This time it was to Astoria, Oregon, for advanced bombing techniques, dropping low level torpedoes and night flying.
By the time Wheeler began practicing aircraft carrier landings at Holtville, California, rumors began circulating about war. He believed the rumors had merit when they left for Pearl Harbor on the ill-fated aircraft carrier USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73). Even Wheeler’s first training flight off the decks of the USS Gambier Bay was one to remember.
“We were flying formation for less than an hour when my wingman said I had an oil leak,” Wheeler said. “I was instructed to return back to the carrier when the engine seized up. I floated in the water for nearly six hours before being rescued.”
After one mission, Wheeler complained about the lack of power in his plane. On the very next flight another aviator flew that same plane, which lost all power on take-off and killed the pilot. On another occasion, he was supposed to fly a mission and another aviator took his place. The plane was shot down, and the pilot spent over a year in the hospital recovering.
Historical events of the USS Gambier Bay are well documented. In the short 15 months of sea duty, the carrier was involved in more than its share of battles in the open sea. An Oct. 25, 1944, attack sank the vessel.
“An 8-inch shell from the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Chikuma left us dead in the sea and taking on water,” Wheeler said. “It was the additional heavy shelling of the Japanese Battleship Yamato at close range that left us all in shark-infested waters for nearly two days waiting for rescue. The majority of the 800 survivors were rescued. Until we were picked up, all we could do was wait and watch the USS Gambier Bay slip beneath the waters of the South Pacific.”
Wheeler’s flying career with the United States Navy continued on until July 1963 when he retired as a Lt. Commander. His career took him throughout Europe to such places as England, Germany, Turkey, North Africa, Greece, Spain, South America and Alaska.
The United States Navy spent a lot of our tax dollars training Wheeler to fly. Wheeler feels that America got its money’s worth.
Story by: Clyde Beal, Herald Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia
(September 21, 2014)
Owen crossed the bar in October 2014.
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Owen E. (“Wheels”) Wheeler (LCDR, USN [Ret.]) was born November 12, 1920, in Huntington, WV. He served his country as a U.S. Navy pilot, enlisting soon after the start of World War II. Almost exactly 70 years ago, the ship on which he was serving, the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay, was hit by enemy fire during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He jumped from the sinking ship into the Pacific Ocean, where he remained adrift with hundreds of other shipmates for almost two days. After his rescue, he joined a re-formed squadron and served the remainder of the war aboard the USS Fanshaw Bay. In 1945, Owen flew the official surrender papers of the Japanese Imperial Navy, North Pacific Fleet, from Mutsu Bay to Yokohama, Japan. In September 1947, he was aboard the USS Missouri, bringing President Truman home from the Inter-American Conference in Rio de Janeiro. Owen remained in the military, serving as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, until 1963, when he retired and settled in South Carolina, the birthplace of his wife, Bonnie Beamguard Wheeler. The Wheelers, who married in 1949, continued to call South Carolina “home” for the rest of their lives. They travelled extensively and appreciated the people, geography, and cuisines of every place they visited. Owen never wanted to visit the same place twice. His life-list of places visited includes more than 120 past and current countries of the globe. After his retirement from Champion International Paper (formerly U.S. Plywood), Owen volunteered at the Soup Cellar, preparing meals for the homeless, and at Meals on Wheels, delivering meals to homebound clients until he was in his 90s and thereafter working to pack meals for delivery. He also volunteered for the Red Cross, working in the pharmacy at Moncrief Army Community Hospital on Fort Jackson. He continued to volunteer faithfully until his death. In addition to his regular volunteer work, Owen was active in his church, Incarnation Lutheran Church. At home, he loved to cook and to experiment in the kitchen. He was most proud of his service to his country, which manifested in many ways, from his career in the U.S. Navy to his commitment to his jobs, employers, and employees in civilian life, to his love of and devotion to his family, and his voluntary service to church and charity. Owen died shortly after returning from a military reunion in San Diego, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. There, he met many old friends and shared his personal stories with midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy. Owen died at home on October 28. He is survived by his daughter, Jennifer A. Wheeler, of Vernon, CT, by Barry Chernoff, of Middletown, CT, and by his sister, Donna Jean Ball of Kenova, WV. He was predeceased by his beloved wife.