"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Case of the Vanishing Lieutenant

To paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan, Paul Byron Whipkey was the very model of a modern Army First Lieutenant. The 26-year-old was smart, brave, serious and disciplined, described as "an all-American young man and a superior officer." He was, in short, one of the last people you could imagine being enveloped by The Weird.

However, since he is featured on this blog, you have probably already guessed that this is exactly what happened.

The young aviator and company commander was stationed at Fort Ord, California. On July 10, 1958, he told some friends at Fort Ord's bachelor officers quarters that he was going into town to "get a drink." Instead, he drove to Mojave, hundreds of miles away, and checked into a motel. The next day, he bought 14 gallons of gas.

After that, the Lieutenant was never heard from again. Five weeks after he was last seen, Whipkey's car was found in "a desolate and forbidding region" of Death Valley, about 400 miles from Fort Ord. The car appeared to be in perfect order, containing the missing man's suitcase, dog tags, and other personal belongings. There was nothing indicating what might have happened to the car's owner. Whipkey's bank accounts had not been touched immediately before he disappeared, and they had not been used since.

The Army listed Whipkey as "absent without leave," and then as a deserter. His superiors seemed curiously incurious about what had become of this highly promising young man. According to the FBI, the Army made only the most cursory investigation about Whipkey's disappearance, assuming that "he would eventually return."

There matters rested until the spring of 1982, when the Army Board for Correction of Military Records held a three-day hearing into Whipkey's disappearance. The board concluded that Whipkey died the day after he vanished. They added enigmatically that "his unauthorized absence...(is) excused as unavoidable...that his death was incurred in the line of duty, not due to his own misconduct." The board theorized that Whipkey "may have wandered out into the desert...and succumbed in the extreme heat; and that the shifting sands have made it a near impossibility to find, or recover, his remains." The Army Adjutant General's office issued a certificate of honorable service, and, as far as the Army was concerned, that was that. The military offered no possible explanation for Whipkey's "unauthorized absence."

All this was not nearly enough for Whipkey's brother Carl. An Army veteran himself, he was convinced from the start that the military knew far more about Paul's disappearance than they wanted to say. His suspicions were first alerted when, just the day after his brother vanished, he learned that officers were already packing Paul's belongings for shipment home. This odd haste, he commented dryly, left him "superhyper superquick." "They must have known he wasn't coming back," Carl argued, "or they'd have waited before writing him off." Carl also dismissed the Army's contention that Paul had deserted. "They said he ran away into Death Valley, then they hinted that he killed himself. I can't buy that. Nobody would go AWOL in a hellhole like Death Valley, and there are easier ways to kill oneself than dehydration." Carl was of the belief that members of the Army drove Paul's car into the desert some time after the lieutenant disappeared.

"The government knows what happened to my brother," Carl said in a 1983 interview. "They can't shake me of that. There are so many questions still unanswered."

Carl Whipkey made it his "life's work" to find the truth about his brother's end. In June 1977 Carl sought information from the FBI under a FOIA request. His petition went unanswered until 1978, when he was informed that the FBI had destroyed all their files on the Whipkey case in December 1977.

Undaunted, Carl accumulated thousands of government documents, as well as many sympathetic allies in Congress and the military, but all these efforts just left him going down darker and darker rabbit holes.

Carl claimed to have discovered that Paul flew in five atomic test explosions in Nevada. His theory was that Paul was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, and may have seen evidence that the Army was conducting classified experiments on human beings. Although the Army confirmed that Lt. Whipkey was assigned to temporary duty at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada between July and October 1957, they dismissed Carl's other claims as unsupported by the evidence.

However, even the Army report acknowledged that after Paul returned from Nevada, he developed black moles and plantar warts on his hands and body. Whipkey began to complain of unaccountable feelings of sickness. He lost a large amount of weight, and the normally cool-headed officer became nervous and depressed. Several months before he disappeared, the Lieutenant had all his teeth removed, and was fitted with full dentures. A fellow officer, Charles Lewis, recalled that after Whipkey's Nevada flights, Paul was interviewed by Army intelligence agents. It was noted that these interviews left Whipkey "nervous and uptight." "Paul's actions were always ethical on and off the base," said Lewis. "But Paul became suspiciously silent to others when the agents were mentioned or appeared on the scene at the airfield or the officer's club."

Carl Whipkey developed even more sinister theories regarding his brother's disappearance. He believed it possible that Paul was a secret agent murdered by his fellow spies. Or that he flew covert missions over the Soviet Union, only to be shot down. Or that he died as a result of Army testing of nerve gas or atomic weapons. Or that his discovery of the military's use of human guinea pigs led him to be murdered. Just to make things even stranger, Carl also learned that his brother may have used the alias "Paul B. Whipper," for reasons unknown. "I would be satisfied even if the Army would say they can't tell us for security reasons. But until then, we can't rule anything out."

The truth about Paul Whipkey's fate probably cannot be called "unsolved." Carl Whipkey was very likely correct that someone somewhere knew the truth about what had happened to the young lieutenant. However, to date, this information has never been revealed. Until that day comes, Carl Whipkey once said, "there will be no peace in our family."

[Note: There are certain resemblances between the Whipkey case and the bizarre disappearance of another young Cold War-era man, West Point cadet Richard Cox.]


  1. Most strange. In cases such as this, I always wonder why, if the powers that be know more than they are letting on, why don't they come with a credible story instead of doing more than merely adds to the mystery?

    1. I can't say what was the case here, but in other instances, the "powers that be" show a complete arrogance: they simply don't care if the public is left with a mystery, or a "cover story" that is patently nonsensical. Their attitude is, "Yeah, we know you know something stinks here. So what are you going to do about it?"

  2. I hope he was shot down as a spy - radiation poisoning is a horrible way to go.

    Somewhere a record does exist - the feds are too anal to destroy all of them.

  3. Hope like that is a dangerous thing...

  4. So on July 11th, their was a confirmed sighting of Whipkey at a service station (in Mojave?) buying 14 gallons of gas. Was that enough gas for his car to get from Mojave to Death Valley? Did any of the motel staff notice if Whipkey met with anyone?

    1. That depends on what type of car he was driving. If he had an American car with a six cylinder engine with a 3-speed manual transmission with Overdrive, he could probably drive all the way to Reno from Mojave. 14 gallons of gas in a standard V8 car is plenty to get from Mojave to all but the most northern parts of Death Valley.

      Still more questions beg answers: What did the people at White's Motel know? What was the event where he allegedly signed "Paul B. Whipper"?

      The Army is made of up largely of kids who haven't had a lot of experience in the world yet, and lots of stupid, irresponsible mistakes could have been made, then covered up by their superior officers. For example, study up on the miserable job the Army did investigating the Dr. Jeffrey McDonald family murders at Fort Bragg, N.C. in 1970.

  5. Camp Desert Rock was part of a nuclear weapon test area in Nevada and Whipkey’s assignment from July to October 1957 coincides with a series of weapon tests known as “Operation Plumbbob”. The health problems that he experienced on his return also sound very much like radiation poisoning. So, the simplest explanation is that he was accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and the Army then covered it up.

    That would explain why the 1982 Army hearing concluded that “his death was incurred in the line of duty”. His “unauthorized absence” would therefore be “excused as unavoidable” because he was dying and he had to disappear in order to conceal the true cause of his death. It also explains why the army started packing up his belongings so quickly. They did know that he wasn’t coming back.

    It’s impossible to tell whether he was coerced into going along with the cover-up or whether he agreed to it out of a sense of duty. The interviews with Army intelligence agents could have left him “nervous and uptight” because they were threatening him or his family, or simply because the subject of the conversations was his imminent death. But if he was as dedicated and patriotic as this article suggests then he may well have agreed to disappear in order to protect a military secret, knowing that his own condition was incurable and that the only choice he had left to make was about what effect his death would have.

    If so, Carl is probably right to assume that Paul’s car was driven into the desert after his death. If he simply wandered into the desert then his body might be found and the truth would come out. Most likely he went to a military hospital to die and his personal effects where then positioned in the desert to create the cover story.

    1. Correction: His personal effects "where" (your word) not "positioned in the desert". They were collected from his office/dorm the day after he went missing. "Where" and "were" are two different words, with completely different meanings. They are not interchangeable.


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