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Champion resident World War II hero's story finally gets told

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By Robert Percy
Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Author's Note: An audio taped recording during an interview with Frank W. Shirey, forms the basis of recognition directed to his dedication, intelligence, and bravery exhibited during his outstanding World War II service.

Shirey, a Clearfield, Pa. native, now living in Champion, served as a pilot aboard a B-24 heavy bomber (Liberator). From Grottaglie Air Base, Italy, Shirey flew 50 missions over many Nazi-held countries. Intense German ground-based anti-aircraft fire, featuring the powerful 88-mm gun, posed the greatest threat. His survivability, with each required mission, was always in doubt.

Clearfield High School and Lehigh University Preparation

Frank Shirey completed the “Scientific Curriculum” at Clearfield High School, anticipating college entry in the fall of 1941.

He amassed an enviable wrestling record of winning every dual match but one throughout his four-year career.

He was three-year District 6 & 9 champion, and became the 145-pound Pennsylvania State wrestling champion his senior year in 1941.

Shirey entered Lehigh University, maintaining a job at Bethlehem Steel while attending classes. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, would drastically alter his future plans.

While attending his second year at Lehigh University, and not wanting to be drafted into the infantry, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Oct. 26, 1942.

Basic and Primary Flight Training

After basic training at Miami, Fla., further training locations included Danville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., and Maxwell Field, Ala. Primary flight training took place at Avon Park, Fla., and Cochran Field, Ga.

It was not very long until Shirey was thrust into making a life-threatening decision while on a landing exercise near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Piloting a trainer (BT-13), and during propeller pitch and RPM adjustments, the propeller broke in half, then totally broke away. This reduced the plane to glider status.

Shirey spotted a furrowed field, and his instructions were to land parallel to the furrows. He knew the field was not long enough to land successfully, so he decided to employ a diagonal approach.

The plane landed, successfully and intact, averting a catastrophic crash. Shirey received immediate commendation for his quick and decisive action.

Twin engine training followed at Moody Field, Valdosta, Ga. Shirey graduated as a pilot - Class 44C, and received his wings and the 2nd Lieutenant gold bar insignia. Further classification at Springfield, Mass., and combat training at Savannah, Ga. preceded deployment to Europe.

Deployment

Savannah, Ga., was the jump-off point to deployment. In Frank Shirey's words: “Flying the B-24s, we picked up supplies at La Guardia Field, N.Y., and Bangor, Maine, with Gander Field, Newfoundland being the next stop.

From that point, we proceeded to the Azore Islands; Marrakech, Morocco; Tunis, Tunisia; and eventually to our home base located at Grottaglie, Italy.

This field was a bombed-out Mussolini dirigible base, located south of Bari, and 15 miles east of Taranto.

I became a pilot for the 15th Air Force, 47th Wing, 449th Bomb Group, and 717th Squadron. Our accommodations consisted of 16 foot by 16 foot tents, four officers to one tent.”

Nomenclature of the B-24 (Liberator) Bomber

Shirey's 50 missions flown over many Nazi-held countries, were completed utilizing this aircraft. The B-24 Liberator was equipped with four Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engines (14 cylinders).

Each was rated at 1,200 Horsepower. Armaments included ten .50-caliber Browning Machine Guns. It was capable of carrying up to 12,800 pounds of bombs, and possessed a speed of 300 miles per hour at 30,000 feet altitude. Its ceiling was 32,000 feet, and had a range of 2,100 miles with a 5,000 bomb load. The plane carried more than 2,500 gallons of high octane fuel. The crew numbered ten in most instances.

Bombing Missions

“My third mission, the target being oil refineries near Vienna, Austria, was costly to our squadron. Out of seven planes sent out to that location, only three of us returned to base. We lost 40 skilled and dedicated men that one day. By war's end, our unit lost 50 percent of our aircraft and 40 percent of our personnel. Ground-based German anti-aircraft flak guns did extensive damage throughout most bombing missions. The German Luftwaffe was not a factor in our bombing experiences. When they did appear, the Tuskegee fighter pilots (P-51 aircraft), an all black unit, flew cover for us. They performed at a high level of efficiency, not losing one bomber , in the formation, to German air attack.”

Northern Italy Bridge Target

“This bridge target, expected to be a relatively easy mission, turned out to be a life-threatening ordeal. Encountering heavy anti-aircraft flak, #3 engine throttle was severed, shutting down the engine. Engines #1 and #2 had the turbo-supercharger shot away. This left #4 engine the only operational engine remaining. Located at the end of the wing, it was difficult to keep the plane in a proper flying attitude. We made it to a field near Bologna, Italy where, in nearby Milan, Benito Mussolini had recently been captured and executed by Italian partisans.”

During this three-day stopover for aircraft repairs, Frank described an incident that brought tears to his eyes. He observed Italian women, obviously in dire need of food, foraging and extracting discarded food from our army's 55-gallon refuse cans. Shirey instructed his crew to load up their mess kits to provide additional food for these unfortunate victims of war.

88 MM Shell Strike

“On one bombing run, a ground-to-air projectile struck our left wing main fuel tank. The shell did not detonate, but ruptured the tank. My flight engineer reported the urgency of transferring the 100-octane fuel to another tank to get back to our home field. He was reluctant to use electric pump power for fear of blowing us out of the sky. I related to him that the motors were totally enclosed, and the transfer could safely be made. We made it back to our base, intact. We later learned that possible sabotage in the manufacture of that shell may have saved our lives.”

Future U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen Connection

“Lloyd Bentsen, a pilot from Texas, became our operations officer for two months. He was attached to another unit prior to flying for the 449th Bomb Group. During one mission, he was forced to make an emergency landing on the Adriatic island of Vis. He was flown to Grottaglie, and made up mission schedules for our group. He requested that I fly two missions as his copilot.”

In post-war life, Bentsen became a four time U.S. Senator from Texas (1971-1993). He was Michael Dukakis' running mate in the 1988 presidential election. He also served as Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton.

Observance of Active Volcano (Mt. Vesuvius)

During the fall of 1944, an assignment to fly military personnel to the Island of Capri, gave Shirey an opportunity to fly over Italy's recently erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

On the return flight to Grottaglie, Frank diverted the flight toward Mt. Vesuvius, made a sharp banking maneuver to observe in his words:”A bunch of red hot boiling stuff down there.”

That was a rare experience to look down, directly, upon an iconic active volcano.

VE Day (Victory in Europe)

The war in Europe terminated on May 8, 1945. Shirey's 449th Bomb Group was transported to New York by the U.S. Mariposa. From New York, his unit was sent to Bangor, Maine where they enjoyed ice cream and turkey so long deprived. Frank's point of discharge from the military on Aug. 15, 1945, took place at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Recognition and Awards

Frank's battle and campaign participation included European Theater of Operations, Rhineland, Northern Apennines, Po Valley, Southern France, Rome-Arno, Air Combat over the Balkans, and Central Europe.

He was awarded the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Ribbon, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and seven battle stars.

Post-War Career and Honors

Upon returning from the European War, Frank Shirey married Pauline Shimmel, a high school classmate, on June 6, 1945. They are parents of three sons and two daughters. Grandchildren currently number eight. Shirey will celebrate his 90th birthday on Nov. 29, 2013.

Frank holds a mechanical engineering degree from Lehigh University. He has held 13 patents relating to aircraft, mass transit, and locomotive engineering while employed at Westinghouse Air Brake Corporation (currently WABCO). He received his professional engineer's designation on March 25, 1960.

Last, but not least, are Frank's wrestling accomplishments. On May 3, 2003, he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, Clearfield Chapter. On Feb. 25, 2006, the Pennsylvania Wrestling Association of District 9 awarded him a certificate for outstanding achievement in high school wrestling.

Summary

Frank W. Shirey epitomizes the many positive qualities that characterize the “Greatest Generation's” military response to counter, during World War II, the powerful military machines of Hitler's Germany, Hirohito's Japan, and Mussolini's Italy. Survival of our nation was placed, largely, in the hands of our young career and citizen military personnel.

The citizens of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, can be justly proud of their native son. His experiences, included in this article, recount the harrowing confrontation over the skies of Nazi-held territory. These experiences speak to his skill, intelligence, and bravery. We salute his outstanding service.

 

 
 


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