An ace remembers
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 21, 2010 1:46 PM
Former U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Frank Speer talks about his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War II and the time he spent as a POW in Germany. On the table in front of him is a painting of a dogfight he was in during which he shot down a German fighter.
Ask Frank Speer about the day he decided to become a pilot and the 88-year-old turns back the clock some 75 years.
"They brought in a Ford Trimotor -- landed it at a nearby airport. You know, there weren't many planes in those days," he said. "So I saved up about $3 to go for a ride and it was just unbelievable. Yep, that was the turning point. I wanted to be a flier after that."
Get him talking about the experience of getting his wings and his eyes light up.
"It was great -- just great," he said. "We actually got to get into a fighter plane, a P-40, and from there, I stepped into the greatest fighter that was ever developed -- the P-51. Man, that was a beautiful flying plane."
But when you get one of the nation's first military aviators going about moments that unfolded in the skies over Germany during World War II, his demeanor quickly changes.
His smile gets a little bigger.
He starts to fidget -- as if he wishes, somehow, he could get back in the cockpit of his beloved "Turnip Termite."
And when he sees an artist's depiction of one of his "kills" -- Speer is an "ace" credited with destroying six German aircraft -- he runs a finger along the drawing of his P-51 and the memories start playing.
"This right here was one of them," he said, his smile growing. "How the hell I held on, I'll never know."
It was May 24, 1944, and Speer and his wingman were engaged with a half-dozen enemy Me-109s over Hamburg.
"Two of us had attacked six of these fellas who were about to dive on our bombers. And they were good planes. Just because the P-51 was the best didn't mean the Germans weren't good." he said. "But, as we hoped for and anticipated, four of them just took off and went home, so I said I would take this one and my wingman would take the second one.
"So I'm chasing this guy and we have reached compressibility. As you can see, I dropped the flaps to keep from overrunning him and almost didn't pull out of it."
Other memories are just as potent.
"Eventually, we started going for them on the ground because they wouldn't come up with us anymore. That was really a dangerous thing because they had so many guns on those fields," Speer said. "But by the time you get into combat, you have so many moves impressed in your mind, half the time you're not even thinking about it. You're automatic. Your attitude, your aggression, you just don't turn it off."
Not even when your luck suddenly changes, he said, before recalling the day he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire.
"Once that fan stops going in the front, you're going down, and at a moment like that, you're not thinking, 'Hey, it's OK, I'm saving the world,'" Speer said. "And I'm not thinking of (my wife). I'm thinking, 'Where can I put this thing down?' That was it. Survival in that moment is what you're after."
His "Turnip Termite" fading quickly, the pilot's instincts took hold and he made a safe landing in a small, open field.
But surviving the crash was only part of the battle.
Speer knew German forces were on their way to his location -- that he would be captured if he didn't make a run for it.
And for some 300 miles, he evaded the enemy, until the wear and tear finally caught up with him.
His body succumbed to exhaustion and he passed out.
"And I was awakened out of a dead sleep and there were rifles pointed at my head," he said. "I can't recall exactly how I felt. I'm not sure I was afraid, although I don't see why I wouldn't be."
So not long after his plane went down May 29, 1944, Speer became a prisoner of war in Sagan prison camp.
"You were sent to interrogation, that was the first thing, and the interrogator knew what he was doing," he said. "But he didn't know what you knew ... and I wouldn't answer any of his questions.
"He said, 'We'll give you a week in solitary to think it over and if you still don't tell us what we want to know, we're going to shoot you as a spy.' That's a nice thing to think about it in a little room for a week."
But his commitment to his country -- and its cause -- never wavered.
And after his stint in solitary confinement, he was sent back to the harsh conditions that faced those imprisoned at Sagan.
"To this day, my thumbs and my feet don't work well because they were frozen in prison camp," Speer said. "There are a lot of those types of residual things. I'm actually considered 100 percent disabled."
And he might have died in German custody -- had he not escaped when he and other prisoners were marched from Nuremberg to Mooseberg.
The two were hidden and fed by French laborers until Patton's forces made their way past their location.
But when Speer was finally reunited with Allied forces, they put him in jail -- not knowing whether he was truly a flier or simply a German spy pretending to be "one of the good guys."
"So one night, they got into a firefight one night and I said to my buddy, 'This ain't my kind of war,'" he said. "So we broke out again."
A few months later, Speer would finally make his return to the U.S.
But being away from the war wasn't an easy thing for a man who had, in many ways, been defined by all he experienced as one of the "grandfathers" of the 4th Fighter Group.
"It's different for everybody. One of the fellas came back and kept a loaded pistol under his pillow," Speer said. "I wasn't that way. I got over it pretty easily. But hell, it's no fun thing."
So when he speaks to crowds set to greet him at Wayne Community College and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base later this week, he will likely tell them about the price tag of living a boyhood dream -- even if it is one he would never trade, despite his quips to the contrary.
"I've often said, 'It was the greatest experience of my life, but I wouldn't do it again for anybody,'" Speer said. "Then again, I learned a lot about people and things that you never would have by chasing a pair of horses across a field."