“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” William James
“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” Elmer Davis
Introduction: The Greatest Generation was a book written in 1998 by journalist Tom Brokaw. The book highlights the lives of men and women in the United States that survived the Great Depression (1929-1933) and then went on to fight in World War II (1939-1945). Other stories highlighted people who helped sustain the war effort at home for the U.S. Brokaw found a diverse group of remarkable people from which he tells amazing stories from this generation that redefined the meaning of courage, sacrifice, and honor. Brokaw remarked that “it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” His belief in this generation of men and women was that they fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill
2021 Memorial Day: Memorial Day is to remember those who died in active military service and it is officially observed on the last Monday in May. Personally, I have always used Memorial Day as a day of remembering those who died and also a day for showing respect and thanks to all who served in our military. Thus, my post is to commemorate 2021 Memorial Day by remembering my father, Frank C. Church, Sr. (born 1917, died 1972), a member of the Greatest Generation.
“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.” Aristotle
Frank C. Church, Sr., Life up to World War II: Although my father was born in Mississippi he was raised in Birmingham, Alabama. Like the vast majority of people who participated in World War II, he was neither trained for battle nor had he gone to one of our Military Academies; he just thought it was the right thing for him to do. Thus, like everyone else, he had the right stuff.
While growing up he participated in many sports, but he excelled in track and field. He was one of those special type of high school athletes because he was offered an athletic scholarship to attend Louisiana State University (LSU). Importantly to him, while it paid for his education in the fall and spring semesters, it was also guaranteed him summer employment. My father was from a relatively poor family; and he would end up hitchhiking back and forth between Birmingham and Baton Rouge in his college years. Like me, his father had died while he was a teenager. His specialty in track were two running events, the quarter-mile sprint and the mile-relay; he was quite good and while at LSU he won medals at several of the outstanding national track and field events (e.g., the Kansas, Penn, and Drake Relays).
In his senior year of college, my father met his future wife and my mother, Margaret Dupuis from Ville Platte, Louisiana. Unlike my father, my mother’s family had enough money to send her to LSU with her own automobile, which was a rarity in the 1930s. Regardless of these economic differences, they quickly fell in love with one another; and the rest is my history, along with my two older sisters.
As World War II (from 1939-1945) was continuing and now on two world fronts, by 1941 and finishing LSU with a degree in Geology, my father had decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Thus, in January of 1942, following marriage, he left for flight training school (the Figure below shows some composite pictures of my father, Frank C. Church, Sr. and his soon-to-be-wife, Margaret Dupuis, and he is pictured as an officer in the Army Air Corps.
“Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.” Omar N. Bradley
Frank C. Church, Sr., World War II: He first had to learn how to fly, like many other things in his life, this came pretty easily for him. He was stationed in the north side of New Guinea in the South Pacific Ocean. He was the pilot of a plane that was nicknamed the Gooney bird, officially, it was a Douglas C-47 transport aircraft. Like many men and women who went to World War II , he shared little to none of the information I’m about to tell you. He just did not talk about his war experiences, whether they were that bad and he was suffering from PTSD or maybe he did not think they were note-worthy of talking about. The pictures below shows his flight training program and then sticking his head out of the cockpit of his first C-47 which was affectionately named “Swamp Rat.”
One of the airbases he flew into was Pongani Airfield located on the north coast of New Guinea inland from the Pongani River. The Google Earth map below shows the general location of this airfield in what is now known as Papua New Guinea. My father’s job was to use this airfield for flying supplies and troops over the Owen Stanley Mountains in support of the Allied campaign against the settlements of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda. Buna was a command site for the Australian government. The Japanese attacked in the summer-fall of 1942, and the Allied Forces mounted a counter attack in December-January, 1942-1943. The fighting on the beachheads was fierce and resulted in 1,500 Australians, 670 Americans and an estimated 4,000 Japanese lives lost (and thousands of wounded). I will not go into further details about either Gon or Sanananda, but you get the picture that there was intense combat in this small area of the world for these settlements, and it took many lives. [This information above has been obtained directly from Pacific Wrecks (click here for URL)].
There were usually 2 crews assigned to each airplane, my father’s and the other crew. Sadly, Swamp Rat was shot down. On November 26, 1942, the C-47 took off from Dobodura Airfield and the plane was piloted by 2nd Lt. Earl B. Lattier with a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) co-pilot Pilot Officer Francis Debenham Milne. While flying at low altitude over the north coast of New Guinea, Swamp Rat was intercepted and shot down by two Japanese Zeroes. Last seen bursting into flames before hitting the ground, the entire crew had died. The names of the downed crew is given below:
Pilot– 2nd Lt. Earl B. Lattier, O-790013 (KIA, BR) Vermilion Parish, LA
Co-Pilot- Pilot Officer Francis Debenham Milne, 33516 RAAF (KIA, BR) Southport, QLD
Crew– T/Sgt Joseph E. Paul, 13006214 PA (KIA, BR) PA
Crew– Sgt Arthur Believe, 16028217 (KIA, BR) NY
[This information above was found in Pacific Wrecks (click here for URL)].
This could have easily had been my father and his crew. I am here today partly because my father was not scheduled to fly Swamp Rat on November 26, 1942. And it is heartbreaking to know this lost crew would never get a chance to follow their dreams and aspirations.
Swamp Rat was quickly replaced by Swamp Rat II, see picture above. Swamp Rat II arrived in New Guinea in January, 1943. In January, 1944, after a year in constant use, the C-47 was flown back to the U.S., and was later sold to Air Cargo Transport Corporation.
World War II officially ended in Europe on May 8 (V-E Day), 1945. World War II ended in the Pacific theater on September 2, 1945 when Japan signed the surrender documents.
“Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Frank C. Church, Sr., Post-World War II: My father returned States-side sometime in 1944 because my oldest sister Tina was born in April, 1945; followed by my sister Kitty in July, 1948. I arrived 5 years later in August, 1953.
My dad came back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had a gas station in town, and finished his M.S. degree in Geology from LSU in 1951, and was all but finished his PhD in Geology from LSU when disaster struck. In 1953, due to torrential rain storms, the gas station was flooded and the business was destroyed, With the loss of income and a wife and 3 children to support, he left graduate school and re-enlisted in the newly organized United States Air Force (USAF).
He was initially stationed in Ashiya Air Base in Japan, and was part of the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron, “Blue Tail Flies.” The location of the air base in the southern island of Japan suggested that flights to Korea and Vietnam were very accessible. We joined my father in Japan from 1955 to 1958, and we think the last year on the base, he was base commander. Dad goes from Tactical Air Command (TAC) to Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1959. He flies the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, then finally moves from planes to missiles; he finishes his USAF career focused on the maintenance of the Titan II missiles. We lived in Texas (a couple of times), Ohio, California, and Nebraska.
My father retired from the USAF in 1967, we moved to Lubbock, Texas; he was the director of Traffic and Parking at Texas Tech University. Dad died at the age of 55 in April 1972 (he had developed a heart murmur during WWII, and one could never fully discount this somehow/some way contributed to his fatal heart attack). Dad you’ve been missed the last 50 years of my life, you were so young when you died and so was I. You gave me much in the 1st 18 years of my life; hopefully, I put your advice/wisdom to good use in my life’s journey and in my academic science career.
“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” Maya Angelou
Denouement: During my years on the medical school admissions committee, one question that I always asked the applicant was “Who was your hero growing up?” The medical school applicant would usually look at me and smile and then give me a wonderful answer. My hero has always always my father. Growing up as an “Air Force brat”. Always answering the phone with the phrase “Colonel Church’s quarters, this is Chip speaking (using my family nickname).” It was a fun/interesting life. We learned after his death that he had received awards, medals, and commendations from other neighboring countries; however, USAF customs and regulations do not allow one to wear or display such medals on the U.S. uniform.
Furthermore, over the years, I have heard many stories about my dad, pertaining to his leadership skills, his ability to work with people, and others would say he was most honorable and very courageous. I have heard about how competitive he was, how amazing of an athlete he was, and that through the harsh-exterior he projected, he had a big heart. Maybe it was that he was humble and that was partly the reason he never talked about his experiences during World War II. In closing, I honestly believe that Lt. Col. Frank C. Church, Sr. earned his place in the Greatest Generation.
“The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we – in a less final, less heroic way – be willing to give of ourselves.” Ronald Reagan
“They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor, who waged war so that we might know peace, who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity, who paid the ultimate price so that we might know freedom.” Barack Obama