By Asa M. Rouse, Biographer, March 15, 2013. All rights reserved to the author
This is a true story about one of Walton, Kentucky's favorite citizens, Lee R. Frakes, a Greatest Generation gentleman who was a crew member on an Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress in World War II.
There's a book about the Eighth Air Force. It's called The Mighty Eighth At War. It was written by Martin W. Bowman and was published in Great Britain in 2010. Staff Sergeant Lee R. Frakes, the radioman on a B-17 named Good Pickin, isn't mentioned in the book, but his 8th Air Force story is equal to any Mr. Bowman writes about.
S/Sgt Frake's story begins with his birth in Covington, Kentucky, on May 1, 1924. He started to school in Covington but at age seven his parents moved to Erlanger and he became a student there.
He was a senior in Erlanger Lloyd High School on the date which will live in infamy, December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, in January of 1942, Lee was in English class when the school's principal notified all of Lloyd High's seventeen year old and older boys to assemble the next morning for a meeting with Lt. Col. Conrad, an officer stationed at Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. Basically, the officer didn't do much more than ask about the health of each boy. Many of them, including Lee, told him they were in good health, a sharing of information which fourteen hours later saw Lee and the others on their way to places Lee’d never even heard of and eventually to the Army Air Corps center at Randolph Field, Texas.
It was natural for young men of that age to express the wish to be a pilot and Lee remembers well the pilot-culling process. He was taken up in a plane and after being airborne and flying around a short time, the pilot gave him a brief, albeit woefully inadequate, oral lesson in how to fly the plane and even how to land it. Naturally, Lee could not land the plane but, as he was beginning his pitiful effort at landing, the pilot took back the controls and made a routine landing. In retrospect it=s fairly clear that there was a method in the seeming madness of the flying exercise. The pilot had learned that Lee lacked the high quality depth perception required of an Air Corps pilot, so he was soon on his way to St. Louis where he had the six week course which made him a B-17 radioman.
Later, back in Texas he had gunner training. From then on he was a radioman-gunner on a Flying Fortress.
Lee and the other fledgling B-17 crewmen were in the air daily, often seventeen hours a day, polishing their skills, even to the point of shooting rabbits on the ground if no other more Aofficial@ target presented itself. The B-17's pilot, co-pilot, bombardier and navigator were all Air Corps officers and were, of course, given the most intensive training.
A certain high school sweetheart was on Lee=s mind all the while. In the early spring of 1942 while on a short leave, airman Frakes married Patricia Ann Ficke in Dalhart, Texas. Their enjoyment of domestic bliss would have to wait a while. Duty called, loud and clear.
The first part of Lee's story, the state-side part of the incredible experience of becoming and being part of an Eighth Air Force B-17's crew in WWII, was concluded when he boarded a Flying Fortress headed for England. The B-17 took off from Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. Fueling stops were made in Iceland and Greenland and the big plane finally landed at Celsa Air Base in England.
On April 2, 1942, less than four months after Pearl Harbor, the officers, seventeen year old Lee R. Frakes and the rest of the crew boarded a B-17 named Good Pickin for their first Eighth Air Force mission. Their course would take them over France on what was described as AA Milk Run,@ meaning that the odds were good that they'd be able to drop their bombs and get back okay to their base in England.
As it turned out, although Good Pickin did in fact get back to base alright, the run was dangerous enough to make Lee and the other crewmen wonder just what would be in store for them in any mission that wasn't a milk run.
They were all made aware early on that twenty-five bombing runs were the number of missions an Eighth Air Force member was expected to make during his tour of flight duty. Disturbingly, they began to realize that it would likely take three years before the twenty-fifth run was completed. To the unknowledgeable it would naturally seem that there should be far more than an average of slightly over eight or so missions a year. But the problem was the weather. English weather is famously bad and that caused the B-17s to be grounded much of the time.
Eighth Air Force veterans frequently cite the legendary B-17, Memphis Belle, as an example of the weather's effect. The Belle saw action… some of it horrific… for three years before any member of its original crew reached mission number twenty-five. The number of Good Pickin’s dangerous daylight bombing missions began to be slowly clicked off, one at a time, getting ever closer to the coveted number twenty-five. Flak always greeted any formation of B-17s soon after it cleared the English Channel on its way to the target. Flak was the name of the deadly dangerous explosions of missiles fired from enemy anti aircraft guns 35,000 or so feet below the formation. The missiles were timed to explode at the same altitude the bombers were flying and sometimes the exploding flak seemed so thick that, as Lee explained, “it looked like you could walk on it.“
Staff Sergeant Frakes’ duties as radioman were subject to being interrupted. If Good Pickin’s waist gunner were killed or even wounded, Lee was to become the B-17's waist gunner. He told me that, although Good Pickin’s waist gunner was never disabled, he had, nevertheless, fired many a round at ME-109s, the German fighter planes which invariably intercepted the formation. Those fighters, together with the exploding flak, were responsible for the loss of many of the Eighth Air Force’s big planes. The German pilots’ preferred approach was straight at the front of a bomber, with the sun behind them so as to avoid detection until the last second. During later missions, when the bomber formations had long range fighter escorts, the threat from the German fighter planes was significantly reduced. Nothing, however, reduced the menacing presence of the dreadful flak.
The piloting of the Flying Fortress was turned over to the bombardier when the target was getting close. The bombardier wouldn't relinquish control of the bomber until its entire bomb load was on its way, at which time he=s say, “Bombs away!” Soon after “Bombs away” the next two words, “Target hit,” were the most eagerly awaited. If any bombs had somehow gotten stuck in their holding mechanisms, another of Lee's duties was to manually get them unstuck.
Unlike the B-17 crew was portrayed in the unrealistic Hollywood movie, AMEMPHIS BELLE, Lee assured me that each and every member of the crew of Good Pickin was deadly serious from the time the plane took off until the English Coast was in view upon return. Lee explained that unlike the tacky Hollywood movie, the War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle, which was released to theaters at the height of World War Two, captured perfectly the all-business demeanor of B-17 crews during missions. Good Pickin’s intercom was constantly on, but unlike in the movie, small talk among the ten man crew was virtually nonexistent. For obvious reasons, the external radio was used only when it was absolutely necessary.
Extending down the middle of the fuselage of a Flying Fortress was a ten inch wide cat walk. Nothing about the plane was plush, nor was it meant to be. Surprisingly, the crew didn't wear their parachutes during flights. Their routine was to quickly put on their chutes when the need seemed imminent.
Mission after mission Good Pickin was able to return to its base in England. It collected many ME-109 bullet holes and sustained lots of flak damage, but its crew suffered no injuries, remarkable considering that missions over France took between three and four hours and over Germany between ten and twelve hours and were all in broad daylight. Good Pickin’s targets were many and varied. Among others there were enemy railroad yards, submarine pens, ammunition factories, ball bearing factories and Gestapo training bases.
Then came February 8, 1943, Good Pickin’s eighteenth mission. All ten of the original crew were on board. The target was the ball bearing factory in Frankfurt, Germany. Everything had gone routinely. The bomber formations were intact. The enemy's fighter planes, anti-aircraft guns and flak were no more and no less present and threatening than they=d been on Good Pickin’s previous seventeen missions. But the routine was dramatically and disastrously broken when a German ME-109 fighter came directly at the B-17's nose, unleashing with deadly accuracy a hail of machine gun bullets. The bullets and simultaneously exploding close by flak severely wounded Lee and also effected a horrific worst scene scenario as the entire front of the plane was literally destroyed. Every officer on the plane and one Staff Sergeant, the plane=s engineer, were killed instantly.
Good Pickin, a Flying Fortress so dependable it had survived seventeen missions during which on several occasions, full of bullet and flak holes, it had landed back at its base on three motors or less… Good Pickin, the combat home of the ten close-knit airmen… was on its way to B-17 oblivion, a thundering crash into the Belgian countryside.
Disregarding his wounds and being unaware that the tail gunner had already gotten out of his cramped and always vulnerable position, Lee, even as the plane was on its way down, quickly made his way to the rear to assist the tail gunner. The two men quickly put on their parachutes and hurried to the door from which they'd very soon be exiting the doomed bomber. The waist gunner had already helped the ball turret gunner out of his cramped position. So, for those five surviving Good Pickin crewmen, it was time to jump.
Two of the five parachutists were killed on the way down when their chutes were purposely riddled by machine gun fire from German fighter planes. The three survivors came down in Belgium near the French border. Following the lesson of their training for this circumstance, the three airmen split up, each going his separate way. Lee stayed hidden in a woods for two nights. The third day he decided to seek shelter so he could get out of the cold and could determine the severity of his wounds, some of which were deep and open enough to invite a fatal infection. He found what looked like a hay stack but was really a sort of hay shack and he took shelter in it, bleeding and growing weaker all the while.
Later, peering out of the shack he saw in the distance a farmer. As it turned out, the farmer also saw Lee. Soon thereafter the farmer and his son approached Lee. Lee said, “I'm an American.” The farmer sized up Lee, decided that Lee was what he said he was and then helped Lee to the farm house.
Back in the states by this time, Lee's wife had probably received official word that Lee was an MIA, a Missing In Action serviceman. When that word was received back home about any airman who flew with the Eighth Air Force, the receiver of the word, and soon all his relatives and friends, sadly knew that chances were slim that the airman was alive.
When Lee got to the farm house, he was greeted with warmth and respect. Soon he was fed and then he was cleaned up as much as possible. Finally he could put on clean clothes… old and well worn to be sure… but nevertheless they were blessedly clean.
The farm family was Belgian. They had very little in the way of worldly goods, but with the savvy of genuine country folk they knew how to make the most of what they had. Many meals consisted of bread and milk only. On one occasion a long-legged rooster had been caught and, because Lee was, after all, a Kentuckian, the Belgian family asked him to cook it. By the way, Lee's later years description of eating “chicken-feather soup” has entertained many a wide eyed school kid.
The marvelous country savvy, however, that was most important to the severely wounded 18 year old Lee Fakes was the method the farm wife had for treating the flak wounds in his back, some of which were quite deep and in almost all of which the flak fragments remained buried.
With various small containers of who knows what, and with candles somehow stuck in the containers, a potion from each container was gently applied to Lee's wounds. Before too long, as if by a kind of homespun magic, the flak fragments were drawn to the surface of Lee's back where the farm wife could skillfully extract them. Finally, leeches from the nearby creek were applied to each wound to combat infection.
And Lee would be the first to tell you that he quite probably would not be alive were it not for the kindness of the farmer's wife and her knowledge of homespun country medicine. While he was still back at the farm house, Lee had been told that he could make his way to either Spain or Switzerland, that both choices were fraught with danger, but that Swiss choice was more perilous. Also he was told that, even if he safely made his way to Switzerland, that's where the war would in effect end for him because the policy of the Swiss was, yes, give sanctuary to any such airman, but that airman would be detained in Switzerland until the war was over, eliminating any chance for him to return to England until then.
Eighth Air Force Staff Sergeant Lee Fakes had felt secure at the farm where he was surreptitiously sheltered and wonderfully treated but, as his health and strength returned, he knew the time would soon come for him make the choice between Switzerland and Spain. Almost daily Lee could look skyward and see the con-trails of hundreds of Flying Fortresses, heading in formation for targets deep in enemy territory. He felt empathy to the very depth of his soul for each and every B-17 crewman as the big planes moved across the Belgian sky. At the same time he felt relief that he wasn’t up there, flying into the danger that awaited.
After pondering all he’d been told, his choice was to head for the Spanish border and then southwest across Spain to Gibraltar.
Before leaving the farmhouse for Paris, Lee warmly expressed his affection and appreciation for each member of the farm family and said his goodbyes. He knew his love for these wonderful people would be with him the for the rest of his life.
At this point Lee began learning what the French underground was all about. In conjunction with America’s Office of Strategic Services… the ultra secret OSS… the underground had helped many American airmen ultimately get to Spain from which they were quickly spirited to England by our Air Corps.
When the time came, the Belgian farmer led Lee under cover of darkness to the French border from which Lee’s challenge was to make his way to Paris. Once in Paris and after his super surreptitious entry into the top secret nerve center of the American OSS and the French Underground, he was carefully and fully informed of what he and an Canadian RAF pilot had to do to get to Gibraltar. Amazingly, that top secret nerve center was in a lower level of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The OSS and the French underground took his dog tags, gave him appropriate clothing, a counterfeit passport, the name of a fictitious Frenchman, Jacques Bornet, and a reliable compass.
Lee's and the pilot’s harrowing experiences from Paris to Spain would themselves be fodder for a dramatically riveting story. The trip from the Belgian farmhouse to Gibraltar took months to complete. They stole countless bicycles, stole food, ate practically anything they could keep down, broke into shops for supplies, hopped freight trains and Lee remarked that even now he doesn=t like to talk about what they had to do when accosted by police types. They slept wherever and whenever they could, living by cunning and wits Lee never dreamed he was capable of or even possessed. During their necessarily circuitous night time way toward Spain, Lee estimates that just on stolen bikes they covered many hundreds of miles.
When they finally got to the Pyrenees Mountains, they were met by a guide who took them farther up into the mountains and over the border into Spain. Their need to walk at night or at any other time was over. From then on Lee and the Canadian RAF pilot traveled by bus or passenger train. First, stop was Barcelona. They were imprisoned in Barcelona for over two weeks until the American Embassy at Madrid confirmed their identity. Lee was relieved to learn that this was a normal part of the process. After all, Spain was a neutral country in WWII and Spanish authorities couldn’t take any chances. They had to know that the airmen were what they said they were and not German spies.
After Madrid came the all-important designated area of Gibraltar. Messages were sent from there to where they needed to be sent and fairly soon thereafter an Army Air Corps cargo plane, a C-46, arrived from England. Lee boarded it and within a relatively short time he was back at his base in England, exactly six months and twelve days from the time Good Pickin was shot down.
From the base he'd flown out of so many times, he was quickly taken several miles away to General Eisenhower's headquarters where he was debriefed and strictly admonished to say nothing about the six months and twelve days. He was told that even a seemingly innocent word might be heard by a Nazi spy or sympathizer and put in dire straits the Belgian family, the French Underground, OSS personnel and any allied servicemen who were trying to get back with their unit. Much later he was again, and even more extensively, debriefed at Andrews Air Force Base in the states. There he learned mum had to be the word until the war was over. That was okay with Lee, he was enjoying the fact that his days of flying missions over enemy targets were over and more importantly, he’d finally been given permission to phone Patti.
When the phone rang at the house where his wife resided, Patti’s mother answered the phone and promptly fainted upon hearing Lee’s voice. Luckily, a neighbor was with her and she was quickly revived. Before long Patti and all of Lee’s relatives and friends were made aware that, no, he wasn’t dead after all, he’d survived and was back, alive and well. The joy at the news simply cannot be described in mere words.
Time passed and then passed some more. World War Two came to an end on August 15, 1945, when the Imperial Nation of Japan surrendered. Staff Sergeant Lee R. Fakes became Mr. Lee R. Fakes. By this time he was finally twenty-one years old and finally a civilian who could be with his beloved wife, Patti. Of the other two parachutists who survived the jump from the mortally wounded Good Pickin, one was taken prisoner by the Germans and died in a German prison camp. The other, a crewman named Morris, survived, got back to the states, received his discharge and enjoyed civilian life until his death some ten years ago.
Lee landed a job just three months after leaving the service. He became the field representative of one of the nation's largest tobacco companies. By the most fortunate of circumstances, the job description was tailor made for Lee's outgoing personality and love of people. On behalf of his employer, for thirty-one years he called on the tobacco farmers of our area's lush burley belt. He retired twenty-seven years ago. Sadly, his beloved Patti died some fifteen years ago, but not before she gave Lee and herself their fine daughter, Pamela, mother of three precious grandchildren.
Lee and Patti moved to the Boone Lake area of Walton several years ago and enjoyed their time together at that beautiful and tranquil location. Lee later moved to his present fine home on South Main Street in Walton. Always interested in whatever was going on around him, Lee became a member of Walton's Town Council some ten years ago. And seeing the need for Walton to have a suitable and proper memorial for the town and the area's veterans, nine years ago he became the driving force for what is now the uniquely beautiful Walton-Verona Veterans Memorial, located on a perfect tract of land on Church Street, immediately behind the town=s impressive City Building.
On May 1, 2011, Lee R. Fakes, Greatest Generation veteran and one of Walton's most beloved and valuable citizens, became eighty-seven years old. It's a cliché to write “eighty-seven years young,” but that choice of words would describe Lee perfectly. He's a guy who is always willing to do his part and more for anybody or anything that needs an able and helpful hand. In short, our modest and unassuming Mr. Fakes is one of our townss most precious assets. We are blessed to know him and to live on this planet at the same time as he does.
Lee R. Frakes, 90 of Walton, Kentucky, passed away Sunday, November 30th at his residence in Walton. He worked for 40yrs as a tobacco salesman with Brown and Williams.
Lee was a member of KY Veterans Hall of Fame, member of the Ralph Fulton Post, former Walton City Counsel man, WWII Purple Heart recipient and an avid gun collector. Survivors include his grandson Steven (Shannon) Tanner of Florence, granddaughters Jeanine Hellmann of Erlanger and Shelley (Eric) Otto of Hebron, sister Margaret (Gene) Elmore of Richwood, great grandchildren Lucas Tanner, Emma Tanner, Abby Hellmann, Phoebe Hellmann, Jack Hellmann and Lilly Otto, dear friends Don “Mack” McMillian, Joe Liest and Dennis Glacken. Visitation will be held Thursday December 4th from 9am to 11am with funeral services to follow at Linnemann Funeral Home in Erlanger. Mausoleum entombment will be held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Erlanger. Memorials may be made to KVCNTrust fund 205 Eibeck Lane, Williamstown, KY 41097 (Kentucky Veterans Cemetery North). Online condolences may be made www.linnemannfuneralhomes.com www.nky.com Northern Kentucky Obituaries