NewsPublic Affairs / February 4, 2016

World War II Hero, Former Indiana Governor Edgar Whitcomb Dead At 98

Whitcomb escaped a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II, served as Indiana's 43rd governor, retired and then sailed solo around the world.Indiana, Edgar Whitcomb2016-02-04T00:00:00-05:00
World War II Hero, Former Indiana Governor Edgar Whitcomb Dead At 98

Indiana’s longest-living governor, Edgar Whitcomb, passed away Thursday at the age of 98.

Frank Oliver/WFYI Productions

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana’s longest-living governor, Edgar Whitcomb, passed away Thursday at the age of 98.  

Born in 1917 in the southern Indiana town of Hayden, Whitcomb grew up working on his family's farm and displayed his sense of adventure and self-reliance early on. 

He left Indiana University to join the U.S. Army Air Corps at the start of World War II, and was stationed in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked. He was captured, but escaped from a prisoner of war camp, swimming 3-miles to freedom. Whitcomb detailed the account in his 1958 best-selling book “Escape from Corregidor.” He also recalled the experience in a 2010 documentary about his life "Full Circle: The Life and Times of Edgar Whitcomb."

"About a couple of hours we felt we were, surely, about halfway. Then, the waves started picking up. The wind picked up; and then it started to rain," Whitcomb said. "Long time all I could do is tread water and think 'This has to be the end of the road.'"

Whitcomb made it to shore and was on the run for two months, but he was recaptured. Sent to the notorious Fort Santiago in Manila, he assumed a fake identity as a civilian and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

After the war, he returned to IU to study law and was elected to the State Senate just as he graduated in 1950. He served three years in the State Senate before resigning to practice law.  In 1966, he became Indiana’s Secretary of State and two years later ascended to the governor’s mansion, becoming the last Indiana chief executive to be term-limited to a single four years in office.  

Whitcomb's term in office began smoothly, but he clashed with fellow Republicans in the legislature over his refusal to raise taxes. So much so, party leaders asked President Richard Nixon to appoint Whitcomb to a federal position in an effort get him out of office. It was known as "Plan X." 

Whitcomb declined an offer to be the U.S. Ambassador to Australia and finished his term in Indiana. Despite the uneasy relationship with the legislature, Whitcomb said the debates were never uncivil.

"I've tried to remain on friendly terms with all of those people," Whitcomb said in the 2010 documentary, "because they're entitled to their opinion and I'm entitled to mine."

After losing a bid for U.S. Senate to Richard Lugar in 1976, Whitcomb returned to practicing law. 

In 1986, recently divorced and newly retired, he bought a sailboat in Greece and took up sailing. As he traveled from port to port he decided to keep going, and eventually circumnavigated the globe.

Whitcomb died in his cabin along the Ohio River in Rome, Indiana, Thursday afternoon with family by his side. 

In a statement, Gov.Mike Pence called the former governor a courageous adventurer who inspired generations of Hoosiers.

"Indiana will never forget or fail to be inspired by the life and example of Governor Edgar D. Whitcomb,” Pence said.

Full Circle: The Life and Times of Edgar Whitcomb from Bryan Boyd on Vimeo.



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