Pilots

Frank Speer

June 1, 2007

Frank Speer and I were in my little two-seat Grumman heading toward Speer's home airport outside Allentown, Pennsylvania. My kinda-sorta navigation seemed OK to me considering the sunny VFR day. Until I asked Speer if he'd like to take the controls.

Not good enough for an ex-Mustang pilot and World War II ace from the 4th Fighter Group, the red-nosed Debden Eagles. Although Speer hadn't flown in several years, the next time I looked, my directional gyro was glued on heading and my altitude discrepancy had evaporated.

Frank Speer was born in 1922 and grew up on the glamour of the fighter pilots who flew during the Great War. As such, he turned his eyes skyward when the winds of global war churned again. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, graduated, and, then in 1943, received his wings. Assigned to fighters, he was one of the lucky ones who trained on the then-new and untried North American P-51 Mustang — his was named Turnip Termite.

After he arrived in England, Speer was assigned to the elite 4th, likely based on his high scores in training. He remembers unit commander Col. Don Blakeslee briefing him on group policy thusly, "You've been trained to the highest standards of the U.S. Army Air Forces and you've no doubt memorized all the rules. As a pilot in the 4th Fighter Group, you are not to leave the ground without breaking as many of those rules as possible. But don't get caught, or you're out of the group."

In a short time, Speer became an ace, having destroyed six German aircraft. On a strafing run at an aerodrome in Germany, his Mustang was hit by ground fire and he belly-landed in a field near Macfitz Airfield west of Berlin. He evaded German soldiers and walked almost 400 miles toward Kiel on Germany's northern coast in an attempt to hitch a ride on a barge to Denmark before he collapsed from exhaustion and was captured and taken to the town of Oberursel, location of the Nazis' main interrogation center for Allied airmen.

In the closing months of the war, he survived a midwinter march from Stalag Luft III that forced thousands of weak, undernourished prisoners (Speer lost 67 pounds in captivity) across hundreds of miles of Germany. Many died.

Today, still trim, Speer lives in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and has written three books based on his service as a fighter pilot. When I saw him last June at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum World War II Weekend in Reading, Pennsylvania, he told me excitedly, "Hey, I got a chance to fly a T-6 [the advanced trainer from his era] a couple months ago. I did a few loops and some rolls. I'm a little rusty, but I had a blast."

And I'll bet he rolled out of each maneuver on exactly the heading and altitude he wanted.