- Photo courtesy Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
- Archival photo of Gov. Edgar Whitcomb.
By Max Bomber, Halie Solea
Born November 7, 1917, former Gov. Edgar D. Whitcomb lived a life full of excitement and adventure. He authored three novels that documented his journey from a small town in Jennings County to serving Hoosiers in the top ranks of state government.
Whitcomb joined the Army Air Corps and served as a B-17 pilot during World War II. He was captured on May 7, 1942, and escaped a prison camp. He then swam eight miles through shark-infested waters, only to be recaptured. Whitcomb heroically escaped again. The story is told in his book, “Escape from Corregidor.”
After his two tours of duty in the Philippines where he was promoted to Second Lieutenant, he was discharged from active duty in 1946, but he stayed on as a colonel in the reserve military forces until 1977.
While in the reserves, Whitcomb finished his law degree from Indiana University and entered into politics. In 1950, he was elected the Indiana Senate where he served for three years. He was elected to Secretary of State in 1966. After a successful term, he was elected governor of Indiana in 1968.
Whitcomb was a popular governor and served Hoosiers with progressive ideas and confidence.
“Following his election as Indiana’s 43rd Governor in 1968, Ed Whitcomb led a period of reform and modernization in state government,” said Gov. Mike Pence in a statement. “During his term as governor, Ed Whitcomb led the state of Indiana with common sense and conviction, improving the lives of Hoosiers.”
A promotional pamphlet from the time contains a statement that his administration “[was] the first in the history of the state to return more than half of each dollar collected by the state government to local units to be used for, highways, mental health, local schools, pubic welfare assistance and other local government functions.”
Former Sen. Robert Garten, who came into state government during this time of Whitcomb’s governorship, recalled Whitcomb’s success and amiability as a politician in a 2015 interview. He remembered Whitcomb’s run for governorship as a smooth one.
“His legacy is he ran an honest government,” Garton said. “He is a very decent patriot, and I know that word is overused. But he believed in America, believed in the American dream, was confident of himself.”
Following his retirement, Whitcomb began sailing. He undertook voyages across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Mediterranean. It took Whitcomb two to three years for his actual circumnavigation, due to planning his trip. The voyage from start to finish lasted almost a decade.
“There are so many stories,” Trish Whitcomb Sipes, one of Whitcomb’s five children said in a 2015 interview. “He had encounters with pirates; he had all kinds of stuff happen. When he was on the boat by himself, he was always tethered to the boat. One time, he actually did fall off the boat and a big gust of wind came and just jetted the boat away from him. And had he not been tethered, he would’ve just been out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
Whitcomb’s bold need to travel developed into an adventure around the country alone at the age of 15.
“He saved up $20, which was a very large amount of money at that time, and he said he was going to go to Sunday school,” Whitcomb Sipes said. “And he really went to where the train came by and hopped on a train and went exploring the United States for several months!”
After he was arrested for train hopping down in a Georgia a few months later, Whitcomb’s mother had to send him money for bail and a ticket back to Indiana.
“And when he got back,” Whitcomb Sipes said, “This is how cool his mother was, she said, ‘Well that was a long Sunday school lesson!’”
A mini-expedition that could have meant lots of trouble for Whitcomb instead fueled a life-long love for travel that eventually turned into the decision to sail around the world.
Finally, after years of exploration, Whitcomb returned and settled back home in Rome, Indiana.
Whitcomb passed away at his home Thursday at the age of 98.