On Independence Day, I remember an American Hero from the Greatest Generation.
July 4, 2013
He was an American hero.
Plain. And simple.
He was made of the right stuff.
Genuine. And authentic.
He never asked to be a hero. He never expected to be a hero. But time, fate, and circumstance gave him no other options.
Frank Dunaway was born on the side of Kilgore, Texas that the poor people called poor. It was called Happy Hollow and was little more than an assorted collection of makeshift tents and cardboard shanties.
During the Great Depression, those too poor for makeshift tents and cardboard shanties slept out in the rain.
Frank Dunaway was surrounded by the riches of the world’s biggest oil boom going on around him, but he got to know the rain really well. Those in Happy Hollow were the ones who earned pennies making sure the oilmen made millions.
His father finally collected enough scrap lumber to build an oilfield shanty. It had a dirt floor and no windows
Dunaway grew up with movie star good looks, sort of a cross between Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper.
He was cocky. He was sure of himself. The girls gave him more than a passing glance when he swaggered down the street, and he had practiced his swagger until it was an art form.
War knocked on his door. And Frank Dunaway would discover that a world did exist somewhere beyond the piney woods of East Texas. The maps had not been lying to him after all.
He enlisted in the Navy, but his buddy failed his physical, so Dunaway never got around to signing his enlistment papers. He and his buddy would go as a team or they wouldn’t go at all. The Army wasn’t so hard to please.
At the age of eighteen, he received a notice that said: “Your friends and neighbors have selected you to be drafted.” He walked down to the selective service office in the basement of the post office and was given a choice between Army, Navy, and Marines. There was no mention made of an Air Force.
Dunaway wound up in the infantry. As basic training ended, he was told: “Report to Wichita Falls for Airplane Mechanic School.”
“I’m not in the Air Force,” Dunaway said.
“You are now,” the sergeant said.
He learned to work on bombers and thought he was pretty good at it, too. He was so good, in fact, that he was told: “You are going to Fort Meyers, Florida, for gunnery school.”
“But I’m a mechanic,” he said.
“Not anymore,” the sergeant said.
With every passing moment, time, fate, and circumstance were slowly coming together, which is why Frank Dunaway was able to catch a regular seat on a B-26, flying bombing runs out of France. A choice seat it was, too. He manned the turret gun. He was locked into the turret without a parachute. There was no room for one. If the plane went down, he would simply ride it to the ground. Maybe that’s why plane was known as the Widow Maker and sometimes the Flying Coffin.
His plane went down.
Dunaway flew fifteen combat missions and once told me, “The first few times we flew, I expected to die. I never thought we’d make it back. From then on, I never gave it a thought. I had some nervous times in the turret, but I no longer dreaded to fly. I had faith in my pilot and in my gun. So I simply crawled in, put my finger on the trigger, and we took off.”
It was a cold morning in 1945. The ground was frozen. And American troops were trapped and bottled up in a place that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
For five days, the bombers couldn’t fly. On the sixth day, they flew anyway.
Boys were dying. They couldn’t wait anymore.
The morning was dark. The weather was bad. Too much fog. Too much rain. Too much ice. The planes were loaded with bombs, and Dunaway’s B-26 rose off the ground. Nothing to worry about. Just another day in the skies over France or whichever country might be lying beneath them.
Two planes were scheduled to take off into the wind at the same time. A new pilot, however had made his way into the base late the night before and did not know the flight pattern.
No one could see in the fog. He turned the wrong way.
Dunaway’s B-26 hit his prop wash and stalled. It lost power. Then it lost hope.
When the plane rammed into the snow-covered ground, one of the two-thousand-pound bombs exploded. The pilot and co-pilot died instantly.
Dunaway was blown from the plane. The oil tank blew, and he was covered with burning oil. He woke up lying face down in the snow and forty feet from the plane. He climbed to his feet, ran as hard as he could back to the wreckage, and pulled the radio gunner out of the plane.
Their clothes were on fire. And Dunaway was limping as quickly as hard as he could from a morning of fire and brimstone, the gunner in his arms, when the second bomb went off. It threw both men to the ground, and Dunaway assumed he was dead. When he awoke in the hospital, his clothes were in ragged strips. His hair had burned off. His skin had peeled back from his face.
They said he was a hero. Dunaway didn’t think so.
Too many had died in the wreckae, and they were the ones who had held his life in their hands. Too many had died at the Bulge because their bombs didn’t make it. The thought haunted him the rest of his life.
Those who survived were offered the chance to fly again. But most had been shell-shocked. Their nerves were shattered. Their war had ended.
Frank Dunaway was the only one of the crew who flew again. He took the job as tail gunner and had a front row seat to the battle in the bluest of skies during the darkest of days. Most times, he saw the enemy planes coming before anyone else, and there were times when the German fighter pilots flew so close Dunaway could see the expressions on their faces.
He wasn’t scared. Neither were they. Some would not make it back before dark. His plane always found its way home.
During most of his life, Dunaway seldom talked about the war. But he never missed a chance to salute the flag when a parade was passing by. He never missed a Memorial Day service in the Kilgore Cemetery. He only missed those he left behind. He and so many like him were the reasons why they called the greatest generation the greatest generation.
Frank Dunaway stood for America stands for. He was and remains my hero. Through the ages, it has been soldiers and sailors and flyboys like Frank Dunaway that makes every day a day of independence for those of us who have followed him.