Governor Whitcomb was born in 1917, in Hayden, Indiana. He enrolled in IU Law School in 1939, but went to fight in World War II before his studies were complete. He was an aerial navigator in the Pacific and was captured by the Japanese. While a prisoner, he was tortured. He escaped once but was recaptured, then escaped again.
[H]e escaped a second time and was hunted for several more days but was able to evade his pursuers. He escaped by swimming all night through shark-infested waters to an island unoccupied by the Japanese army. He was eventually able to secure passage to China under an assumed name where he made contact with the United States Army and was repatriated in December 1943.
Whitcomb finished out the war doing bombing runs in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Whitcomb gave an account of his war experience in the best-selling 1958 book, “Escape from Corregidor.”
After the war, Governor Whitcomb returned to law school and graduated. In 1950, Whitcomb was elected to the state Senate where he served for three years. In 1954, he resigned to pursue his law career in North Vernon (later Seymour and Indianapolis). In 1966, Whitcomb was elected to the office of Secretary of State for Indiana.
In 1968, Whitcomb ran against future Governor Otis Bowen and future Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. Bowen enjoyed the support of several large counties and was able to beat the other two candidates. The general election was fought on tax policy and national issues. Republicans were the beneficiaries in these issues and, after two down cycles, returned to power. During redistricting, the legislature had to honor the Warren Court Baker v. Carr court case which adopted the one-person, one-vote principle. As the population shifted from rural areas to urban areas, legislative districts hadn’t been shifting to keep pace. The result was that rural voters were over-represented. With the Baker v. Carr decision, the legislative Republicans had to redistrict in a way that shifted representation from rural areas to urban areas.
The situation created by the new development caused a split in the party between the urban and rural Republicans. Urban Republicans and their representatives tended to favor increasing government provided services and spending, while the rural Republicans tended to favor reduced spending and more limited government. Whitcomb found himself in party with the rural Republicans, while Bowen, who had become speaker of the house, grew to become a leader among the urban members.
Whitcomb was aligned with the rural Republicans while Bowen, who had become Speaker of the House, was aligned with the urban Republicans. Whitcomb vetoed a number of House spending bills which contributed to the rift. One consequence of the division was that Bowen was able to have one of his people take the state party chairman’s position which was seen as a snub of Whitcomb. In retaliation, Whitcomb directed political contributions to a fund he controlled which caused the state party financial hardship.
Governor Whitcomb sought to address the state’s budget problem without raising taxes in a way that had gotten his recent predecessors in trouble. He was able to adopt efficiency measures and auditing techniques that reduced expenses and increased revenues. His resistance to tax increases put him at odds with his fellow Republicans — so much so, apparently, that party leaders enlisted President Nixon to try to sideline Whitcomb with an offer to become Ambassador to Australia. Whitcomb declined and finished out his term.