Lore of the Corps Memorial
VADM Kenneth R. Wheeler, SC, USN (Ret.)
By RADM Frank J. Allston, SC, USNR (Ret.)
The late VADM Kenneth Ray Wheeler, a truly great legend of the United States Navy Supply Corps who died on April 29, 2002, was a World War II prisoner of war of the Japanese for more than three years. He resumed his Navy career after his liberation in 1945 and served with distinction until he retired in 1974.
Ken Wheeler was born at the small Arkansas community of Huntsville in northwestern Arkansas on June 3, 1913, but at an early age, his family moved to Fullerton, California He learned to swim at the Fullerton YMCA and developed great skill at the sport. He entered the University of California in 1935, joined the swimming team, and accepted advice to enroll in one of Cal’s ROTC units. Young Wheeler, who harbored a desire to “follow the sea,” opted for the Navy and its four-year postgraduate commitment over the Army’s two-year requirement.
As graduation approached, Ken Wheeler had become an Olympic-class swimmer and might well have been selected to represent the United States had the planned 1940 Olympics not been canceled when war swept across Europe. He was graduated in May 1939 and received a commission as a Reserve Line ensign. Ken Wheeler had majored in commerce and always wanted to be a Supply Corps officer, but he was ordered to active duty and assigned immediately as assistant gunnery officer and navigator in USS Hull (DD 350).
Ensign Wheeler only had to wait three months to fulfill his desire to become a Supply Corps officer. He learned during the summer that, as an NROTC graduate, he could transfer to the Supply Corps and his application was approved in August 1940.
Wheeler was ordered that month to report to the Navy Finance and Supply School (NF&SS) at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. ENS Wheeler was impressed by a guest lecture of then LT James Boundy (later a rear admiral and chief of the Corps), who extolled the virtues of service in the Asia Squadron. The young paymaster was so interested that he determined to seek duty in the Far East. Wheeler and most of his classmates were assigned to the Pacific Fleet upon graduation in the spring of 1941.
He sailed across the Pacific, along with five fellow NF&SS graduates, aboard the SS President Adams to Manila, arriving in July. The five other new young paymasters went to ships, but Wheeler’s orders directed him to the Navy Yard at nearby Cavite, where he was assigned as officer-in-charge of a branch purchasing office in Manila.
On December 7, 1941, (Dec. 6 in the United States), ENS Wheeler went to a function at the Manila Army-Navy Club and stayed overnight. He was awakened at about 3 a.m. and advised that Japanese planes had conducted surprise air attacks on Hawaii, centered on Pearl Harbor. All officers were immediately ordered to their respective ships and stations.
As Wheeler recalled, “I reported to my duty station at the cold storage depot. We were flooded with emergency communications and orders from everybody in the harbor because they were all under orders to get underway immediately.” The Japanese attacked the Philippines later in the morning — within hours of the Hawaii raid.
The Cavite Shipyard Supply Department began an immediate “all hands” emergency issue of supplies to American and Allied ships and shore installations. The situation became more hopeless as air attacks continued and Japanese troops came ever closer over the next 17 days. As the bombing was rapidly destroying the Philippine capital city, Manila was declared an open city. Wheeler was ordered to ship the maximum foodstuffs possible to the Bataan Peninsula then throw open the warehouses to the Philippine civilian population and evacuate. ENS Wheeler carried out his orders and departed Manila on Christmas Day on the last truck out.
At Mariveles on Bataan, he was first ordered to the disabled, but still afloat, USS Canopus (AS 9). Wheeler was subsequently assigned, along with other Navy personnel, to the Provisional Naval Infantry Battalion, Bataan, given brief “training,” and issued World War I vintage rifles. Wheeler remembered, “We had been in place no more than a day or two when a landing was made directly in our sector by about 600 Japanese marines in an attempt to cut the only road that existed around the peninsula.”
Fighting as infantry, the naval unit held off the aggressors and took heavy casualties but was relieved by a regular U.S. Army unit six days later. By then, young Wheeler had been promoted to lieutenant junior grade and was ordered in early April 1942 to Corregidor Island, a heavily fortified bastion in Manila Bay. There, he relieved a pair of senior Supply Corps officers who were evacuated to Australia. U.S. military survivors, who had escaped from Bataan, huddled on Corregidor, where they were unmercifully pounded by Japanese air and sea attacks. All available defenders were massed on the east end of the island and fended off five waves of attacks on the night of May 5 but were finally overwhelmed on the sixth assault and forced to surrender. Wheeler recalls that it took several days for the Japanese to confiscate all the valuables from their American captives, who were forced to sit in the hot sun without food or water.
After a month, their captors moved the defeated, disheveled and demoralized Americans off Corregidor and to the island of Luzon, where they were forced to march through Manila as extremely sympathetic Filipino citizens watched in silence.
LTJG Wheeler has described the next three-and-a-quarter years as the most difficult and trying time of his life, “In the final analysis, however, it may have been the most important, positive experience of my life as well. I was able to arrive at some firm decisions about the philosophy I wanted to live by.” Future events would prove that he was a man who lived by that philosophy over the next 60 years of his life.
Ken Wheeler was successively incarcerated for about two years in two Luzon damp and dingy prisons and one year in a maximum-security penal colony on Mindanao Island until early 1943. When American air attacks put pressure on their captors, the Japanese responded by shipping their prisoners back to Luzon. The Americans were subsequently loaded aboard a filthy troop ship in December 1943 for transport to Japan, but the unmarked vessel was torpedoed by an American plane and abandoned. As it was sinking, LTJG Wheeler employed his swimming skills twice to rescue fellow comrades despite machine gun fire that forced survivors to swim to the beach at Olongapo on Subic Bay between narrow lanes. They were returned to prison and forced labor in rice paddies.
A second attempt, on New Year’s Day 1945, to move the prisoners to Japan also failed when their unmarked, foul-smelling horse transport ship was sunk at Formosa by U.S. Navy aircraft while it was tied up alongside an oiler. Again, LTJG Wheeler successfully swam ashore two times with wounded Americans. He was later rewarded with two Bronze Star medals in recognition of his heroic acts and the Purple Heart for wounds he received.
The frustrated Japanese finally loaded 1,616 of the sick and wounded for transport to a camp at Fukuoka on Kyushu Island, Japan. Wheeler was one of only about 120 to survive the travel ordeal. They were kept only a few months in Japan as American B-29 raids on Japan intensified. According to Wheeler, “They moved us to Korea to a port then called Jinsen on the west coast. It’s now the port of Inchon. They put us in a prison camp there and that was the camp from which I was to be liberated in 1945. Great things happened then, just like bad things had happened before. When the 7th Army landed at Inchon, tanks came through the town, broke down the gates to the prison camp, and young GIs came in, carried us all bodily out to the trucks and down to the beach. Landing craft were there and took us out to a hospital ship.”
Ken Wheeler was transferred at the end of hostilities first to Hawaii, where he called his mother at Fullerton, then was sent home and was promptly promoted to lieutenant. He was hospitalized at the Naval Hospital, Corona, California, where he read 45 back issues of Life magazine to catch up on happenings in America during his absence, and returned to active duty. During this time, he met a family friend, Marilyn Louise Benningsdorf, on a Halloween 1945 date and they were married on December 30 at Fullerton. Chaplain Earle Brewster, who had been a fellow prisoner or war, performed the ceremony. The young married couple settled in the Washington, D.C., area in January 1946 for duty at the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts. He rapidly rose to the rank of lieutenant commander and went on to compile a record of distinguished service in the Supply Corps.
Retired RADM Frank Allston visited retired VADM Kenneth Wheeler at the Wheeler home in Statesville, N.C., in August of 1997. Kenneth Ray Wheeler’s experience during World War II demonstrates his extreme courage in the face of unparalleled privation. The beliefs that he developed during the early days of his imprisonment molded the characteristics that were a hallmark of his Navy career and were undoubtedly factors in his highly favorable relationships with superiors and subordinates alike. Ken and Marilyn were an inseparable, loving couple for more than 55 years and reared two daughters, Sandy and Chris, and a son, Ray.
In April 1946, he was ordered as supply and accounting officer, Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, Maryland. He returned to BuSandA in July 1947 as detail officer in the Personnel Division. Promoted to commander, he reported in July 1949 as supply officer of USS Boxer (CV 21), assigned to the 7th Fleet in the Far East.
CDR Wheeler next was supply and fiscal officer, Naval Air Station Moffet Field, Calif., from 1950 to 1953, before reporting to the Aviation Supply Office, Philadelphia, as provisioning coordinator for about three years. In 1956, he attended the Naval War College at Newport, R.I. He was promoted to captain in 1957 and reported as supply officer, Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Fla.
I first met CAPT Wheeler in June 1959 when, as a lieutenant in the Supply Corps Reserve, I served for two weeks of active duty at NAS Jacksonville. At the end of my first week, I delivered a completed special AOCP (Aircraft Out of Commission-Parts) report that he had assigned me. CAPT Wheeler asked me if there were any supply operations in which I had a specific interest. I told him that since I had no previous experience in aviation supply, I’d be interested in exposure to as much of his department as possible.
From among the available options that CAPT Wheeler offered, I made the injudicious choice of selecting a hurricane-hunting mission in a Lockheed WV-2. My wife, Barbara, and I, along with our 3-year-old son, were staying at a motel outside the main gate. She was horrified at my decision, but after I was issued flight gear and attended the briefing, the mission was scrubbed. Months later, I reviewed my official jacket at the Bureau of Naval Personnel. The fitness report on my NAS Jax duty read in part, “LT Allston performed in an excellent manner and even volunteered to go on a hurricane hunting mission.” CAPT Wheeler did not record that the mission did not take place. I always credited him with responsibility for my subsequent promotions. He and I frequently shared laughs in recalling the events of 1959.
CAPT Wheeler was recalled to BuSandA in 1960 as director of Supply Corps personnel and served until 1963, when he was ordered as commanding officer, Ordnance Supply Office, Mechanicsburg, Pa. He next attended the 46th Advanced Management Program at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, from which he was graduated in the spring of 1965.
Kenneth Ray Wheeler was promoted to flag rank in June 1965 and assumed duty in July as force supply officer, Commander Service Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, with additional duty as fleet supply officer and assistant chief of staff for supply, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. RADM Wheeler became fleet supply officer of the Atlantic Fleet in June 1967. He returned to Washington one month later as director of financial services in the Navy Office of the Comptroller. He became assistant comptroller of financial management in May 1969 with additional duty as commander, Navy Accounting and Finance Center Washington. RADM Wheeler was awarded the Legion of Merit medals both for his Atlantic Fleet and comptroller tours.
In July 1969, he reported as vice commander, Naval Supply Systems Command. He relieved RADM Bernhard H. Bieri Jr., as NAVSUP commander and 31st chief of Supply Corps in June 1970. As head of Navy supply, RADM Wheeler was credited with devising and directing new and better ways of doing business through advanced management techniques. He was promoted to vice admiral and designated vice chief of naval material in January 1972. As the senior supply officer on active duty and principal adviser to ADM Isaac Kidd Jr., the chief of naval material, VADM Wheeler directed the Navy’s acquisition and logistics programs in providing material support to operating forces. The six system commanders reported to him.
VADM Wheeler retired from the Navy in September 1974. Among his military awards were the Distinguished Service Medal, three Bronze Star medals, two Legion of Merit medals, the Purple Heart, and Distinguished Unit Citations. In addition, he received the George Washington Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
He and his family first located in Jacksonville but eventually settled in Statesville, a community of 18,000 in north central North Carolina, where he became an executive in the furniture business. He was deeply involved in community affairs, including leadership roles in several significant Statesville organizations. He was named the 1988 Outstanding Citizen of Iredell County. He also continued his close association with the Navy as an influential member of the boards of directors of both the Navy Supply Corps Association and the Navy Supply Corps Foundation.
Ken Wheeler had a positive influence on his Navy and civilian associates throughout his Navy career and in his post-Navy activities. Several of those associates, including five Navy Supply Corps flag officers, have eagerly provided reminiscences of their highly positive experiences with him. Retired RADM Wallace (Wally) Dowd served both as RADM Wheeler’s vice commander and his relief as the 32nd chief of Supply Corps. He remembers, “Ken was not only a true professional but the kindest and most compassionate man I ever met. I was his vice commander and under orders to report as commanding officer of NSC Oakland, but Admiral Elmo (Bud) Zumwalt decided he wanted me to come to Vietnam to take over as head of U.S. Supply Corps operations and head of the Vietnamese Navy Supply Corps. My wife, Polly, was in the hospital with a heart catheter but was let out in order for us to drive from Washington to California. Marilyn Wheeler and other Supply Corps ladies took charge of closing out our quarters and arranging the shipment of our household goods West.” Dowd flew to Vietnam and recalls enthusiastically that he had Wheeler’s complete support in the war zone. “Whatever I needed in Southeast Asia, the Chief — Ken — made sure that it was sent.”
When another Supply Corps flag officer, retired RADM James E. (Jim) Miller was chosen as the 37th Chief of Supply Corps in May 1991, he called VADM Wheeler, who gave him sage advice. In his eulogy at a memorial service in Statesville on June 13, 2002, Miller recalled that Ken Wheeler advised him, “There is one thing you should always keep in mind. If you take care of the Corps, the Corps will take care of the Navy.”
Yet another former chief of Corps — the 39th — retired RADM Ralph (Mitch) Mitchell has a special fondness for VADM Wheeler. “From the time I first met him as I was getting ready to transition to the Supply Corps from the Line … to his visit to Wintergreen (Mitchell’s home) after I retired … to his last note right after the 9/11 tragedy, he’s been a special human being. He was always truly more interested in your welfare than his own … with a sincerity and kindness that always made you feel better every time you saw him. I feel blessed to have known him.”
A fellow North Carolinian, retired Supply Corps RADM Peter (Pete) Bondi, reminisced about a speech that he heard VADM Wheeler give during a conference at NSCS Athens around 1990. “Ken was the principal speaker and delivered tremendous remarks. I was so impressed with his definition of professional success. He said, ‘Perhaps the only real measure of success as I now understand success will be the love, pride and spiritual development of those I touch; in the extent of my genuine contribution to the progress of the profession I follow; and in a meaningful contribution of the welfare of the society to which I belong.’ I always felt this was a wonderful encapsulation of how all of us should live and was especially descriptive of how Ken did live.”
RADM Lee Landes, SC, USNR (Ret.), recalls two instances of Ken Wheeler’s kindness to him. Landes, who played a leading role in the formation of the first Junior NROTC unit at the high school in Livonia, Mich., invited then RADM Wheeler to commission the unit. “Ken agreed to come to Livonia, where I was living, to take a cadet review and commission the unit. Having him here was very impressive and very helpful to the Navy image in Michigan. I’ll never forget the time in 1983 when I was in the hospital and had a telephone call from Ken, who was also in the hospital. We had a nice long chat.”
Landes also recalls the time when he and the late RADM Heinz Loeffler, SC, USNR, had dinner with the Wheeler family and spent the night before Ken’s 1974 retirement as guests in his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard. “It was a marvelous evening of good fellowship.”
Retired CDR Merlin (Mack) McCulloh, SC, USN, served under then CAPT Wheeler, CO of the Ordnance Supply Office at Mechanicsburg. When his tour was coming to an end in 1973, McCulloh faced assignment to overseas duty. The 20-year Supply Corps veteran believed strongly that such an assignment of living two years outside the United States would be unbearable for his seriously ill wife and daughter, a rising high school senior. CAPT Wheeler, an experienced former director of Supply Corps Personnel, offered to arrange a special one-year unaccompanied tour, but McCulloh opted for the alternative of retirement instead. He recalls an unexpected offer. “Captain Wheeler told me, ‘My job is to help you retire.’ Later, as he and I were walking from his office to my retirement ceremony, he said, ‘If you change your mind before the ceremony, I’ll tear up your retirement papers.’ I noticed that he seemed downcast and I asked him if anything was wrong. He said ‘Yes. I have confidential information and I need to share it with someone. This afternoon, I must announce to our people that OSO is being disestab-lished.’” Ken Wheeler’s concern for his subordinates was a human touch that was greatly appreciated by all who served with him.
I had an opportunity to discuss VADM Wheeler with his fellow Rotarians at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Statesville two weeks after his death. Barbara, and I had planned a trip to North Carolina in May. Ken and I agreed months before to attend a meeting of Statesville Rotary together on May 14, 2002, and to go to dinner that evening with our wives. After his death, Marilyn desired to continue with the dinner plans and we had a delightful evening, reminiscing with this remarkable, lovely lady. She also arranged for one of Ken’s fellow Rotarians to greet me at the meeting site and to introduce me around.
My Rotary host that day was Andrew (Andy) Pendleton, who served as an Army Air Corps staff sergeant in World War II and a retired local architect. He sponsored Ken Wheeler into Statesville Rotary. Pendleton was impressed with the fact that “Ken never made a distinction by rank in States-ville. It didn’t matter whether you had been a private or a general, he treated everybody the same. When I sponsored him into Rotary, I told the club officers that, in deference to his rank, they should make him sergeant-at-arms. They did, he accepted and he performed well.”
Another Statesville Rotarian, CAPT Barry Miller, DC, USN (Ret.), recalls that RADM Robert H. (Bob) Spiro Jr., SC, USNR (Ret.), then president of Jacksonville University, introduced him to CAPT Wheeler when they were both on duty in the Jacksonville area. They met again in Statesville years later and Miller recalls, “When Ken moved to Statesville in the 1970s, the Navy had a bottom-of-the-pits reputation because a Navy recruiter had been involved in several questionable activities that set a bad example for the community. Ken got involved, the recruiter was reassigned, and Ken turned everything around.”
Wheeler became president of the Statesville Rotary Club for the 1987-1988 Rotary year. By coincidence, the day we agreed upon for me to conduct a lengthy interview with Ken at his lovely Statesville home in August 1987, was his second month as Rotary president. That interview was the first of more than 150 that I conducted for “Ready for Sea, The Bicentennial History of the U.S. Navy Supply Corps.” His warmth, generosity and unlimited cooperation were reminiscent of our earlier meetings and made it easy for my initial foray into interviewing the legends of the Supply Corps.
Ken Wheeler made a strong impact upon the citizens of Statesville and Iredell County virtually from the time he and Marilyn arrived. He took leadership positions in several commercial and philanthropic organizations at both the local and national levels. Serving as president of the Rotary Club of Statesville and as chairman of the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce are testimony to the esteem in which he was held.
The Statesville daily newspaper, Record & Landmark, devoted a significant amount of space in tribute to this beloved citizen in a May 1 editorial. The editor opined, “Kenneth R. Wheeler was an America hero and one of the nicest and most professional men to ever grace our town. … What made Mr. Wheeler different was his life experiences and the philosophy toward life he developed during the war … America and States-ville owe a deep debt of gratitude to Ken Wheeler. Those of us who knew him will never forget him. His wife, Marilyn, is just as special.”
The Supply Corps is of a size with leaders who encourage a spirit of family and the Wheelers epitomized that spirit. Ken’s love and dedication to his country, the Navy, and the Supply Corps was deep and lasting. In retirement, he continued to stay in touch with Navy issues and leadership. He was greatly supportive and I can attest personally to his interest and involvement. When I had the enormous task of researching and writing “Ready for Sea,’ VADM Wheeler and the late RADM Bernie Bieri invited Barbara and me to attend a reunion of the NF&SS Class of 1939-1940 at Ashe-ville, N.C., in May 1993. Ken gently encouraged his classmates to share with me their World War II experiences. Their previously untold stories formed one of the most absorbing and fascinating parts of the Corps’ history that was published in 1995.
The Wheelers were among hundreds of Navy, Reserve and retired Supply Corps officers gathered at NSCS Athens in July 1995 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Corps’ founding. At an assembly of Supply Corps flag officers on June 13, 1999, for a conference at the Defense Supply Agency, Fort Belvoir, Va., we honored VADM Wheeler at a luncheon with a special cake on his 80th birthday. Our wives joined us for the Washington Area Supply Corps Association dinner cruise on the Potomac River that evening. These gatherings are typical of many special occasions that Supply Corps officers have enjoyed over the years. It was always a privilege to attend such gatherings in the company of Ken and Marilyn. I consider Ken Wheeler one of the finest Americans I have known — either in my military or civilian career.
RADM Justin D. (Dan) McCarthy, NAVSUP Commander and 42nd Chief of Supply Corps, provided a fitting capsule summary of this hero’s life in a statement he issued upon VADM Kenneth Ray Wheeler’s death. “Admiral Wheeler was a true patriot and dedicated Supply Corps leader whose commitment and love for our Corps endured throughout his life. His unselfish contributions to our Corps, our Navy, and our nation will survive the passing of this exceptional American. I look forward to joining you in paying tribute to the extraordinary member of our community.”
During his wartime internment, the young Wheeler developed and clarified his life objectives and wrote a journal, “For My Children,” a copy of which is now on file at the Navy Supply Corps Museum in Athens. This journal, reads in part, “I resolved to put my wartime experience aside where possible and to lose no time to self-pity, resentment, jealousy or hate. Held too long or too deeply, these emotions must eventually consume the one who surrenders to them. Every day left for me is truly a day of grace, a day of love, a day of beauty and a day of happiness. I shall not complain.” The foregoing words sum up the philosophy of a man who was not only a great Navy leader but also a truly genuine human model and an outstanding American.
An estimated 350 of VADM Wheeler’s close friends, business associates, and family members filled Trinity Episcopal Church in Statesville on June 13 for a memorial service. RADM Jim Miller gave the eulogy. According to Wheeler’s fellow Rotarian, Andy Pendleton, “I have heard many comments about the beauty of the service and its theme of honoring Ken’s service to his country and the Statesville community, his love of family, and his great sense of morality, honesty and faith.”
RADM Bondi, who also attended the memorial service observed, “I was impressed with the reverence in which Ken Wheeler was held not because of his high Navy rank but because of his contributions to his community and his fellow citizens.”
CAPT Dave Ruff, then Commanding Officer of NSCS Athens, attended the memorial service, along with several other retired senior Supply Corps officers.
Funeral services took place on June 20 in the filled-to-capacity Fort Meyer Chapel at Arlington, Va. Burial with full military honors followed in adjacent Arlington National Cemetery. Chief of Supply Corps RADM Dan McCarthy provided the eulogy in which he bade farewell to VADM Wheeler, a true American hero. “You have accomplished everything you hoped for and then some. You have touched us all and because of it, your legacy lives on in each of us. Fair winds and following seas, shipmate.”