398th Bomb Group

Col. Frank Patterson Hunter, Jr.

William J. Humphries

The commanding officer of the 398th Bomb Group as remembered by journalist William J. Humphries, a college classmate, friend and confidant.

Colonel Frank Patterson Hunter, Jr. D.F.C., with Oak Leaf and Croix de Guerre with Palm, was born February 21, 1908. He was graduated with the Class of 1933 and was shot down January 23, 1945, while leading his Group, the 398th Heavy Bombardment, into action over the Rhine River town of Neuss. It was his 17th raid against the German enemy. The B-17 from which he was directing the engagement sustained a direct hit going in on the target run. The A.A. burst sheared off half the port wing, and the bomber crashed, killing all but one of the crew.

This survivor has told how Colonel Hunter fulfilled his last responsibilities as a soldier-airman. Self-sacrificing as always, “Foxey” remained at the controls, struggling to right the spinning ship so that his crewmen might have a chance to bail out. Those who could least spare the tireless warrior were his wife and two young daughters. The men of his Group, like a wide circle of friends, experienced in his death both an irreparable loss and an inspiration. The Colonel’s passing challenged every one of them with the knowledge that his effort would have to be greater because “Foxey” was not coming back. There was also the realization that there was a lasting grief to bear. The memories of Colonel Hunter had built a shrine to which fond thoughts would be making a perpetual pilgrimage.

The Colonel’s ability to inspire was the result of a quiet earnestness, leavened with a love of the worthwhile things in life. Humor and seriousness were admirably counterbalanced in the mind of the son of the late Frank Patterson and Cora Wilcox Gayle Hunter. His father and mother lived at Portsmouth, Virginia. They handed on to “Foxey” the best qualities of their Southern inheritance. These were a sense of their convictions and a respect for the ageless values of family ties and customs. The unostentatious self-assurance of the true Virginia gentleman was inseparably a part of “Fox”.

These characteristics were inborn. His love of flying belonged to another age, but there was something natural about it. He wrote from Randolph Field in 1933, that “it would make me very happy to be a good airman – a good artist.” The appreciation of craftsmanship expressed then came from an innate admiration for excellence in all worthwhile fields of human endeavor. The grasp of “Foxey’s” mind enabled him to find and reverse the true artist in a broad range of activities. Thus, his friends knew him as a man as ready to pay homage to a deserving Southern kitchen, as to pass keen judgment on less perishable works of the purely intellectual arts.

This is said, not to confine his interests to select, precious matters, but to give them scope. “Foxey” was keenly alive to the problems of his time. The Army was his career, but it did not encompass his life. His sensitive mind was always alert to the forces at work beyond his professional horizon. He felt that his responsibilities as an officer obligated him to be well informed on all broad questions of the day. Equipped with a thirsty intellect, he found his self-imposed task easier than most men. Then, he had another advantage in his inclination to weigh his information rather than embrace it. Because contemplation tempered all his observations, “Foxey” was known as a reliable, as well as a hungry reader. Because contemplation flavored his thoughts, he was sought out as an excellent conversationalist.

Frank went to Randolph Field after his graduation and commissioning in the Field Artillery. He elected the Air Force because the element of the air challenged his unflagging curiosity and because he correctly sensed its undeveloped arm had to be exploited by a high degree of craftsmanship. In flying, the expert hand had to be revealed and maintained at all times. With his appreciation of high performance, it was only natural that he should try to win his wings. He got them in October, 1934. The following December, he married Maria Greenough Burgwyn Long, daughter of the late Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Williams Mason Long, of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. “Foxey’s” two daughters are Maria Burgwyn, born in 1935, and Sarah Gayle, born in 1940.

“Foxey” attended Portsmouth, Virginia, High School and St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, before entering West Point in 1929. His decision to drop his liberal arts studies may have come as a surprise to his St. John’s friends of three years’ good standing. But it was arrived at after a careful review.

His first Air Force assignment was Albrook Field, Canal Zone. Enroute to Panama, the transport stopped at San Juan. The brief break in the voyage set his mind to work in a characteristic manner. He saw the riotous contrast of lush tropic color and debasing squalor. He saw the “tiniest church in the world,” a Catholic miniature with two pews. He saw the hand of Vauban, the French military architect, in the construction of El Morro. These varied impressions were typical of his journeys. In Panama, the backdrop of his work interested him just as much. There were the Indians, whose language and primitive ways had a fascination for him. Then, the pair of young Americans, who had buried themselves in the jungle years previously. They were engaged in a losing gamble to grow coffee as a short cut to wealth. These and other wayside people were never too haphazard to have a story and a significance. “Foxey” could listen as well as converse. Because he could instill confidence in those about him, he could draw from a man his more searching thoughts.

This was done in a friendly manner. The stamp of a gentleman is the ability to be considerate and understanding. “Foxey” wore it enviably, which is to say casually. To less fortunate men, it seemed, perhaps, to be a medal to be displayed or laid aside at will. “Foxey” was too interested in mankind, however, to be seen without his friendliness. The villagers about Nuthampstead, Hertfordshire, England, where the 398th Heavy Bombardment Group was stationed, were among those who found him so.

These friendly people, from the Vicar to the jolly proprietor of the thatch-roofed pub, got to know the Colonel and his Group. They learned to miss them, too, before the shooting was over. The 398th arrived in April, 1944, and went into action May 6th. It teethed on Berlin. It participated in four raids on the “Big Town” within the first two weeks. The bombing schedule leading up to D-Day was a mammoth undertaking. The East Coast of England shook daily with the thunderous roar of B-17’s and B-24’s falling into formation. In the decisive push to shake Germany to her foundations with “1,000 Bomber” efforts, there were unavoidable losses. The Eighth Air Force had laid out a vast carpet of pre-invasion targets, and Germany’s most heavily defended war centers were among them.

The Leuna synthetic oil works at Merseburg; Kiel, Ludwigshaven, Posen, Dessau and Mulhouse were a few of the names over which were inscribed the flaming arcs of gallant airmen and their ships dying together. After the Normandy beachhead was secure, the merciless pounding went on. Berlin again, Hamburg, Leipzig. Munich and Peenemunde, the Baltic Sea birthplace of V-1’s and V-2’s. The inclination of many thoughtful men in times like those tense moments was to discard accepted, adult values. To lose a sense of balance was either exhilarating or logical. The extroverts squeezed the utmost from their hard-playing leaves. A moment of repose for the introvert meant a chance to brood according to his faith, his hopes, or his despair. The men of the 398th will remember how inspiringly but unobtrusively their Colonel stood among these wearing tides of psychology. His appreciation of the light-hearted moments, his interest in the work of the Chaplains, his fondness for seeking a quiet moment with intimate friends all identified “Foxey” as a balanced intellect whose leadership was exceptional. The quality of being able to serve as an example is a virtue that is regarded as ordinary in peacetime. In wartime, it is vital. “Foxey” had that quality.

After completion of his foreign service, he went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Thereafter, he was stationed in the United States until going overseas in the war. His patience, his ability to get the most out of his men and his professional skill were the very qualities that kept him out of combat until 1944. He was an ideal training man and as such, he saw with deep disappointment, two Heavy Bombardment Groups take off for combat without him. These were the 301st and 307th, of which he was deputy commander. His next assignment, the 398th, brought him the chance he had been waiting for. He led it to the European Theater. He would have been proud of its record. Three months after he was posted missing in action, the 398th went on its last raid of the war. It was No. 195.

The exhausting pressure of his responsibilities never left the Colonel too tired to feel anxiety about the welfare and comfort of his Group. His interest in their recreation stemmed from the sort of solicitude that a boy comes to expect from his favorite uncle. Never a coercive man in such matters, “Foxey” did not expect non-religious minds to share his own, deeply religious convictions. But there were many who saw in his composure an influence of his devotion to the Episcopal Church and a thing to be desired.

It is safe to say that “Foxey” continues to influence the lives of those fortunate enough to share his friendship. For them his memory is imperishable, both as an admirable, loveable character and as a mind who had surveyed life and found it eminently worth living. His friends will always remember, for example, his subtle way of expressing his ideas. He was too intelligent to be academically opinionated. He accepted the other point of view. But he would return it, eventually, so skillfully interwoven with his own precise and revealing thoughts that such thoughts keep recurring to those who knew him well. They return with their enduring interpretations, as old refrains come back from nowhere. The haunting ways of memories and tunes would indicate that neither have completely fulfilled their purpose.

There are many who think that “Foxey” would have turned to writing eventually. He showed himself to be an expert correspondent, and those who were on his mailing list were confident that his reporting of his many environments were good enough to be published. Certainly, he had the first qualification of a good writer, the ability to get the comprehensive view and transmit his thoughts accurately on paper.

The friendliness of “Fox” was a noble thing. He liked places as well as people. He saw charm in the drab, war-torn dignity of London. Equally attractive was his native Tidewater, Virginia, where he could see the marsh grass swaying in the thick, salt air, with their roots deep in the rich, smelly mud of the Chesapeake. No scene was too casual, no vista too narrow but what “Foxey” could find in it a memorable story of history, of people and of their joys and quarrels.

From January, 1945, to the summer of 1946, “Foxey” was buried in the North Cemetery at Dusseldorf. His body now rests in the American Cemetery at Neuville-en-Conbroz, near Liege, Belgium. He was a very gallant gentleman.

Printed in Flak News Volume 9, Number 3, Page(s) 3,4, and 5, July 1994

Note: The above article has been placed on the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association web site to share our history with a wider audience. You may view, download, print, copy and link to our content as you wish as long as the uses are personal or educational. 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association web page content cannot be used for commercial purposes nor placed on other web sites whether commercial, personal or educational, unless authorized in writing by the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association Official Board and/or the author.