The more than six decades that have lapsed since Ensign C.
Markland Kelly, Jr.’s VF-8 fighter plane was officially “lost” at
the Battle of Midway have done little to dampen the ember of mischief that
burns in the eyes of his school friend Major Bowen P. Weisheit, USMCR (Ret.).
Indeed, a breeze of righteous indignation fans that ember as Weisheit, who
now practices law in Bel Air, Maryland, recalls a fateful evening in 1981 in
his service on the board of directors of the philanthropic foundation that
bears Kelly’s name.
“Ensign Kelly was a fraternity brother of mine,” notes
Weisheit, an aerial navigation specialist who spent substantial portions of
the Second World War teaching celestial air navigation in various capacities,
including a stint as the first ground and air instructor at the Weems School
of Navigation at Washington National Airport. “We didn’t serve
together because I went in the Marines and he went in the Navy.
“You know where Kelly Buick used to be, [at] Mount
Royal and Charles Street? It’s now the University of Baltimore, but when
Kelly had it, [Ensign] Kelly was his son. [Kelly Sr.] died terribly brokenhearted
because the Navy was never able to tell him what happened to his son.
“The old man left his entire fortune – several
million – to a foundation of which I’m a director now,” adds
Weisheit. “We disperse [funds] to appropriate places: schools, scholarships
and things like that. It’s several hundred thousand dollars a year, so
it’s substantial. Well, that foundation has a board, and we meet, oh,
sometimes once a month. We have a meeting in the afternoon and then go to have
some dinner. And we usually have a belt [of Scotch] and then call it a day.
“Well, back in 1981, all that took place,” Weisheit
grins. “But I was thirsty that night. So when the first one disappeared,
somehow or other there got to be another one there. We were sitting around
for a little bit and one of the guys says, ‘It’s really too bad
that nobody knows what the hell happened to Mark.’ Well, in my moment
of – I can look back on it and call it weakness now, [but] that wasn’t
weakness then – I said, ‘Awww, I could find out what happened to
him.’ You understand I have many hours out there in the Pacific and all
over the place, and I knew what I was talking about. But in the case of the
Great Guffaw: ‘We have an instant historian amongst us tonight! Oh, my
word, how remarkable that is!’”
And so, ears still burning, Weisheit set out to plot and
document his friend’s final hours halfway round the world on that fateful
morning of June 4, 1942...
Weisheit traveled all over the country to interview the surviving
pilots from Kelly’s USS Hornet-based squadron.
“They all didn’t have the same reaction, but
they were all glad to see me,” notes Weisheit. “I had more time
or as much time out there in the Pacific flying as any of these guys, and they
knew it, [so] they did not bullshit me!”
Combining the more than 400 resulting pages of interviews
and his own navigational expertise, Weisheit began piecing together a progression
of events that with each turn differed increasingly from the US Navy’s
official battle action report.
The results, however, came as little surprise to Weisheit. “They
had to file a battle action report the minute they got back to Pearl Harbor,” he
notes. “Well, Christ, they’ve got 30 guys still floating around
out in the water! They don’t know what the hell happened to anybody!”
Weisheit ultimately published his findings in a slender tome: The
Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Junior, USNR.
“I went ahead and published the whole thing myself,” chuckles
Weisheit, who directly sells copies of the book himself. “It was not
the cheapest thing I ever did, but fortunately I had enough money to do it.
So I published it, [and] sooner or later it began to get around a little bit.”
The next turning point in the peculiar saga of Weisheit’s
search for Ensign Kelly came in the unlikely venue of Harford County, Maryland.
“I have a cousin that has a horse farm up there in
Darlington,” notes Weisheit. “People send them horses, and they
train them to race, things like that. I gave [my cousin] one of the books,
so it was sitting there.”
As fate would have it, the book caught the attention of one
of the farm’s clients, one Rear Admiral C.A. “Mark” Hill,
Jr., USN (Ret.).
“Admiral Hill had a horse [that] he had them train,” laughs
Weisheit. “All of a sudden, he says [reading Weisheit’s name], ‘What
the hell is this? I never heard of him!’ So my cousin, she says, ‘Oh,
you’re an admiral in the Navy. He’s nothing but a Marine!’ He
says, ‘Oh, I see. Well, in that case, I’m going to take this book!’”
Hill wrote a positive review of Last Flight in the
Winter 1993 issue of the Association of Naval Aviation’s Wings of Gold
(www.anahq.org). From there, it was but a matter of time before the book landed
before the late Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, USN, former Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. It wasn’t long before Weisheit himself followed suit.
“He sat down with me for two solid hours,” Weisheit
says of his meeting with Moorer. “He took one look at the book and said, ‘Oh,
the Navy hadn’t gotten [a] thing right.’”
Indeed, Moorer saw enough value and merit in Weisheit’s
work that he immediately set about placing a number of sizeable orders for Last
“It went to every naval library in the entire world,” says
Weisheit, noting with a twinge of pride that the first order shipped directly
to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “Furthermore, while
we’re talking about that – there has not been one single mistake
pointed out to me in this book. Not one.”
Having surmounted the challenges of publishing his first
book, Weisheit applied his curiosity and technical skills toward one of aviation’s
most enduring mysteries: the 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator
Frederick Noonan over the Pacific during an attempted circumnavigation of the
“[Admiral Hill] wondered aloud one day whether or not
the mighty Naval search [for Earhart’s plane] that covered thousands
of square miles had really been worthwhile,” explains Weisheit. “He
said, ‘My research leads me to conclude that if Captain Noonan had survived
it would have changed the practice of navigation in the world forever after.’”
Calling once more upon his navigational expertise as well
as extensive research, Weisheit (who met Noonan during his tenure at the Weems
School) drew a painstakingly-detailed portrait of the ill-fated flight in his
1995 book The Last Flight of Frederick J. Noonan and Amelia Earhart.
From there Weisheit took an autobiographical tack with his most recent book,
bearing the clever if belabored title How Nature’s Deadly Foresight
Fashioned Weisheit Hindsight, published in 1999.
“I was searching titles for my old man when I was 13
years old,” chuckles Weisheit. “I have a son who’s only 56 – I
was 30 when he was born – and he is the sixth straight lawyer in our
family. They were all lawyers, going back six generations from him, to the
first lawyer in the middle of the 1800s. And they were all real estate lawyers,
every damn one of them.”
Despite the praise with which his work has been received
(in admittedly specialized circles), however, Weisheit insists that Hindsight is
his literary swan song.
“This is the last one,” he explains, noting that
it was no particular love of writing that drew him to the form in the first
place. “I’m no writer, what the hell? I don’t profess to
be a writer. But these [books] answer very highly-technical questions in my
mind. Writing [Ensign Kelly] had nothing whatsoever to do with the Navy, the
Marine Corps or anything else. I didn’t do it for them. That was the
last thing I was thinking about. Kelly was a pal of mine. I wanted to do it
for myself, for our foundation.”
And speaking of Kelly, just what did the perpetrators of
the “Great Guffaw” have to say when Weisheit presented his handsomely-bound
findings to the board of directors of the Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr., Memorial
Weisheit throws back his head and lets forth a giddy howl
reserved for those who laugh last. “There was nothing they could say,
I could tell you that, boy!”