Dorr: This is why we pause to remember on memorial Day

Frank Duncan, left, is pictured at the 2000 Memorial Day observance in Princeton, as his wife Irene, center, and Muriel Mathison, right, hug. Both families lost sons in Vietnam.

For more than 30 years as an editor of a weekly newspaper I wrote columns about Memorial Day, usually beforehand.

This year I’m going to write one afterwards and I’ll tell you why. Usually those columns ended up, in one way or another, reminding people that Memorial Day should be more than just a three-day weekend.

I’d usually ask that people take at least a few minutes out of their weekend to remember those who served our country, especially those who gave their lives and those who were wounded.

Once in awhile a cynic would ask why I kept harping on that theme. There are lots of good reasons, I would reply.

Today I’m going to tell you about one of the many hundreds of thousands, or million, reasons.

Monday, after ceremonies in Princeton, I talked with an old friend, a father who has been coming back to town for the services 27 years after moving away.

That father lost a son in Vietnam. And you can certainly understand why, even at age 92, he makes the trip from Maple Grove each year with some of his sons.

But let me tell you a little more about Frank Duncan.

Frank flew 131 missions during World War II, 56 of them over North Africa and 75 more in the CBI (China, Burma, India) Theater.

And those last 75 came after he volunteered for the Pacific after completing the 55 (he somehow flew 56) missions required to be sent home from North Africa.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After graduating from tiny Hill City High School near Grand Rapids, Frank was a senior at the University of Minnesota when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

He had just completed the fall quarter and had paid $33.50 for tuition the next quarter. Then came Pearl Harbor. He enlisted the next day and asked for, and got, a refund of the $33.50.

“I probably had only a dime before that,” he said, with a laugh.

He joined the Army Air Force, trained in Phoenix after going there by bus, then went to Los Angeles for more training, then went back to Phoenix to learn how to fly a P-38, a twin-engine fighter.

And in August 1942, with only five hours in a P-38, he took a train to New York City and then a ship to England. The next stop was northern Ireland where they were staging airplanes, farther away from Germany.

And then the war began for Frank in late 1942 as he was sent to North Africa to be a pilot with only about 10 hours in a P-38.

His squadron “got shot up pretty bad,” he said. “There were not many of us left.”

Then he joined another group from England and went to Casablanca. And by July 1943 he had flown the 56 missions.

His plane was badly hit once, with the right engine losing fluid and the left losing oil, over the Mediterranean.

He was able to land in friendly territory, got picked   up by British troops who he lived with for about a week, and then came home because he had flown the required number of missions.

“Every landing and every takeoff was a hazard, not like it is now,” he said in answer to a question about facing danger.

Back in the States in Texas, and then as an instructor in California for about a year, Frank asked to be transferred to the Pacific.

“I don’t know why – I must have been crazy,” he said.

He flew 75 more missions and then came home in 1945 in a ship that took 63 days to get to Long Beach, Calif. He traveled in a ship from Calcutta to Australia, past the Philippines and Okinawa, and then to Hawaii.

“They dropped the bomb [over Hiroshima] before we got home so we knew the war was over,” he said. “But we [all pilots on the ship] couldn’t figure out why we took the route we did with the Japs all around us. We wanted to go straight home.”

His days of shooting at targets on the ground such as tanks and trains were over and he was mustered out in August 1945 when he got to Long Beach.

After Irene, his wife-to-be who was an Army nurse, was discharged, he returned to the U of M and got a degree in agricultural economics.

He worked for Green Giant in Blue Earth for a number of years, at a  bank in Breckenridge for four years, and then came to Princeton  to farm.

“When the milk prices went to pot and the land prices went up, we sold,” he said, “and got out at a good time.”

He left Princeton for a job in North Dakota and came back to Minnesota to live later, beginning his string of trips to Princeton on Memorial Day to remember his son Kurt, a Navy corpsman who was killed when his vehicle hit a land mine.

He’s not a guy who dwells on what he did. He did keep in contact for 65 years with a fellow pilot who lived in California but that contact ended last winter and he thinks his old friend has died.

Nobody had to help as Frank stood in line to get his food Monday after the program at the cemetery, perhaps thinking of what might have been for his son.

“Are you glad you did what you did?” I asked.

The 92-year-old, a friend for nearly a half century, looked me in square in the eyes and said simply, “Yes. I went in the day after Pearl Harbor. It was the right thing to do.”

You have a pilot who flew 131 missions for his country, you have a son lost in Vietnam, and you have a man who gave a lot for his country.

And those kinds of stories are why you should pause to remember on Memorial Day.