By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneOctober 11, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla. (Oct. 11, 2018) -- Veterans of the division artillery elements that supported 1st Infantry Division reunited in Artillery Park here Oct. 5, to dedicate a marker in memory of the late Ira Whitaker of Sterling, Okla.
Whitaker, who died Feb. 4, 2017, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the 1968 firefight at Fire Support Base Rita in Vietnam. He was then serving as command sergeant major of 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery (FA). His widow, Wanda, who ran Wanda's Cafés in Elgin and Sterling for many years, attended the ceremony and posed for pictures in front of the M109 Paladin howitzer that her husband defended during that action.
The first of two speakers at the ceremony was Daniel Settle, who as a captain commanded C Battery, 8th Battalion, 6th FA, and earned the Silver Star for his actions at Fire Support Base Rita.
"I want to welcome everybody here for the dedication for Sgt. 1st Class, Sgt. Maj. and Command Sgt. Maj. Whitaker. You take your choice on how you refer to him because you all knew him at different times during his career," Settle said.
"He was a Soldier's Soldier, and nobody who ever knew him would ever deny that. He took care of his troops. His troops loved him. His officers loved him. And certainly his wife Wanda loved him."
Settle stood in front of one of the earliest versions of the Paladin, one that still bears the hole left by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). It sits on pad C-22 in Artillery Park, northwest of the Army Field Artillery Museum.
"I would like to direct your attention to the dedication plaque which we have made in honor of Sgt. Maj. Whitaker, which reveals to us the story of Fire Support Base Rita and his heroic actions at that fire support base.
"Many, many of us who were there can thank him for their lives. He was the savior of the fire support base. He got to this howitzer a little late. We were sitting in our bunker, and the rounds started coming in. The attack started. First Sgt. Whitaker called down to the gun, and there was no answer. He immediately grabbed his M-16 and took off running down to this howitzer.
"When he got there, there was a (North Vietnamese) sapper trying to climb up onto the front of it, and he annihilated him. And there were two people with RPGs off to his front, and he annihilated them with the help of now (Maj.) Gen. (Charles Calvin) Rogers, who received a Medal of Honor. As (lieutenant) colonel at the time, he was reloading the ammunition for Sgt. Whitaker as he was firing upon them."
Then commander of 1-5th FA, Rogers is the highest-ranking African American to earn the Medal of Honor. In February 2004 the Lawton Silver Spurs Riding Club dedicated the 14th annual All-American Heritage Invitational Rodeo to the late Rogers.
Together, Rogers and Whitaker diminished the threat in front of the howitzer. Whitaker continued in his efforts to get the other howitzers firing. Settle said he met Whitaker about halfway between the howitzers.
"He took one gun, I took another gun, and rallied the men to keep them firing. On one of the guns, there was a Soldier mounted on the top with a .50-caliber machinegun firing, and he took a direct hit in the chest and was found lying inside of the howitzer. The men were cowered at the back, in the ammo bunker. We cleaned that up. Our fine medic, Mack Easley, cleaned the howitzer up and got the gun firing again.
"It was something that none of us will ever forget. It's indelible in our minds, and most of all the heroic actions of 1st Sgt. Whitaker."
Settle then yielded the pad to Easley, who told the 50 or so veterans and family members present about Whitaker's civilian life. Easley said he knew Whitaker when he was their first sergeant in Vietnam.
"I met him about two months before Fire Support Base Rita. Great man. And I learned to love him at that moment. Well, I didn't know how much.
"I looked him up when I got back to Fort Sill, and first chance I got, the very first time I came back to Fort Sill in 1976. I called him on the phone and found out he had an appointment at the hospital. At that time I was working in the family practice clinic at the hospital. I made sure that I saw him at that appointment. We chatted, we talked, we reminisced a little bit.
"He was busy. The Army had become a second life to him. He retired from the Army, he bought some land up in the Elgin-Fletcher (area), had a small house on it, and before he got out of the Army, he and his brother-in-law built the rest of that home as it stands today Days, nights, weekends, any chance he got, he was up there working on that house.
"He didn't stop working. When he retired, he started working. He farmed hundreds of acres down at Bowie, Texas. Produced the largest crop in that part of Texas ever. Probably could have moved down there and taken over that part of Texas in the farming business, but he loved Oklahoma. He had a home here. His family was here. His kids were here.
"He established the restaurant first in Elgin, and then later on, they opened the second restaurant in Sterling. Wanda pretty much ran the restaurant with the help of the local citizens and high school kids. The high school kids worked for Wanda and Ira during that time."
Whitaker became president of the Sterling Board of Education and served many years in that position because he cared about kids, Easley said. His son attended Sterling Public Schools, and Whitaker coached his son's baseball teams from the time the players were small until they graduated from high school.
Around 2000, Easley called up Whitaker and said, "Ira, we need to go to a 1st Division reunion." He couldn't make the first one, but after that Easley stayed in touch with Whitaker and didn't let go.
"I was real proud that I stayed with Ira, because I got Dan Settle to come back, too. And that put the CP (command post) together," Easley said. "We've had a lot of fun. And all of the things that have happened was because we knew a great man, a good Soldier, a really good man."