Tribute to a World War II fighter ace

Frank E. Speer, WWII fighter ace

Lt. Frank E. Speer of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group based at Debden, England

My wife, Mary, and I met Frank Speer in March 2003 at the Military Order of the Purple Heart banquet in Fullerton.  Frank was the speaker for the annual gathering of Lehigh Valley Chapter 190. He was there with his companion, Anne Kramer. Mary and I were guests of Purple Heart leader Ernest “Whitey” Eschbach, an Army veteran whose Guadalcanal story I got into The Morning Call the previous Veterans Day. We all sat together.

I was in awe of Frank, a veteran of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group based at Debden, England, who had graduated from Allentown High School in 1939. He was credited with six kills and had a Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism. Though we’d never spoken until now, I’d heard about him. He was a World War II fighter ace who in his 70s had started writing about his experiences and speaking at schools and events like this one.

Frank and I stayed in touch. I wanted to do his story for the next Veterans Day. But that year I was busy with the writing and editing of The Morning Call’s narrative history, Forging America: The Story of Bethlehem Steel. Frank’s story could still get in the paper, but not the way I usually do the installments in my series War Stories: In Their Own Words. Mostly, I spend hours with the veteran and record his or her remembrances, then transcribe the recording and shape it into a narrative.

With Frank, I would ask him to write his own story for the newspaper, and I would be his editor. That would save me time. He started working on it in early October. He wrote about being shot down near Poland in May 1944 in his P-51 Mustang, trudging 400 miles over eight days across northern Germany and getting captured by the Germans after passing out from exhaustion and lack of food. He served almost a year in three Stalags and eventually escaped with the help of French forced laborers, whom he then led in capturing two dozen German soldiers.

When his draft was done, we worked on it together at his Emmaus home until both of us were satisfied. Mainly, it had to be cut down, and in some places I drew him out for richer detail – for example, where he describes his plane going down.

The story ran on Page 1 of The Morning Call on Nov. 11, 2003, with a portrait by Call photographer Chuck Zovko, who has since left the paper, and the photo that appears with this blog, showing Frank in the cockpit of his P-51, nicknamed Turnip Termite. The headline read: “I could feel the bullets hitting my plane.” On an inside page, we ran a painting by artist James Doddy that shows Speer’s Mustang attacking a Messerschmitt 109. Doddy did the painting in the mid-1990s after reading an account of the dogfight in Speer’s book Wingman. Here’s the link to the story: http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-frankspeer,0,2668864.story?page=1

Frank and I fell out of touch after that. Anne, who was his second wife, died in 2009. He went to live with his son Jeff in Cedarburg, Wis. Jeff said his dad had congestive heart failure and was hospitalized on Christmas Eve, then went into assisted living. Several weeks ago, on March 1, he died in his sleep. He was 89.

A memorial service was held Friday at Nativity Lutheran Church, Allentown.  A couple of other World War II fliers were there to salute him – Nathan Kline and Wendall Phillips. Among the mourners was artist James Doddy.

Frank’s children spoke of him as a motivator who urged them to always try their hardest, to never give up, to keep moving ahead. He led by example, reinventing himself over the decades – he took up tennis, bonsai, painting, public speaking and writing. Besides Wingman, his books include One Down, One Dead; The Debden Warbirds; and the latest, 81 Aces of the 4th Fighter Group, which Jeff told me his dad spent years researching.

To me, Frank had made his appreciation clear. In my copy of One Down, One Dead, he wrote: “To David, who wants the Greatest Generation remembered.” And I’ll never forget his authoritative voice the day his story appeared in The Morning Call, when he called me and said simply, “Good job.”

It’s my turn now.

So long, Frank. Good job.

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