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Fredric Arnold with "Lucky," one of the figures in his Lest We Forget: The Mission sculpture Courtesy of Fredric Arnold

Honor Roll: A Chat With WWII Fighter Pilot Fredric Arnold

In this installment of our conversation series with veterans, we sit down with Fredric Arnold, an artist and former WWII fighter pilot who lost all but one of the group of pilots with whom he graduated from flight school. His sculpture honoring them will go on display later this year at the National World War II Museum.

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More than 37,000 active duty military personnel live in Colorado. We also boast a veteran population of more than 413,000. That means close to 10 percent of the Centennial State’s 5.3 million residents have served or are serving. Yet, too often, civilians’ only association with this population is through Hollywood films. This conversation series provides a different kind of connection. Roughly once a month, we’ll sit down with a veteran who’s having a positive impact in his or her community. We’ll talk about their experiences both in the military and after, and highlight the important contributions these valuable men and women make to their communities once they return home.

Editor’s Note: These conversations contain mature content and, occasionally, explicit language.

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Fredric Arnold
Lest We Forget: The Mission
Longmont, Colorado

Twenty-year-old Fredric Arnold was already a talented and established artist when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Trained as a child at the Art Institute of Chicago, Arnold worked for Hearst newspapers in Chicago and a New York studio as a cartoonist and photo retoucher. But Pearl Harbor changed everything. Arnold became a P-38 fighter pilot. Stationed in North Africa with the 71st Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, Arnold was one of the first American fighter pilots to survive 50 missions (and two crash landings), including the invasion of Sicily. He was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in the Mediterranean. Sadly, only one other member of Arnold’s graduating class of pilots lived through combat. Arnold completed his military service in the Office of Flying Safety as a writer and illustrator who created educational materials for pilots. He later wrote an autobiographical novel—Doorknob Five Two, Arnold’s call sign—about his time in the Air Corps. But always, he was an artist.

As the years passed, Arnold wanted to honor the 12 men from his graduating class who did not survive. He did so first with a mural painted on maps from his missions that his crew chief had given him as a gift when he left the squadron. A scene from that mural became the inspiration for Lest We Forget: The Mission, a 12-figure bronze sculpture that honors not only Arnold’s lost comrades, but also the other 88,000 airman killed in World War II. Now 93 and living in Longmont, Arnold worked with Loveland sculptor Sutton Betti to transform his miniature sculpture into the life-sized version that is in the final stages of completion and later this year will become a fixture at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This is Arnold’s story.

5280: Before you were a fighter pilot, you were an artist…
Fredric Arnold: I’d been drawing since five years old. I learned at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was only about 11 years old. I had two years from 11 to 13 with this guy Edmund Giesbert. I got in on the Life Drawing class. It’s anatomy. It’s very essential. Every wrinkle that you see on a sculpture comes through what’s underneath. How the body shapes it. Otherwise it doesn’t look like it’s really dressed right.

So how did you go from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Army Air Corps?
Pearl Harbor! I was at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the students came running down the hall hollering that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. We didn’t know if Pearl was a female or what… [laughs] It was an unusual experience. It didn’t matter who you were or what you were: The country was at war. We had to go. My brother was a year ahead of me; I had just turned 20. We both went down to enlist, and my father and mother were very upset about it. My father was a pacifist. I named my plane after him: Mr. Arnold (I was the only one who didn’t put a girl on there). He didn’t even know I was in combat. When I came home and came out of the military car and we embraced and everything, he didn’t want to look at this [motions to where medals would be on uniform]. He refused to look at it. When I was just a little kid, he said, Don’t get into fights. Run away if you have to. If you can’t, do what you have to do for survival. That was the only background I had of it. My life had been just painting and drawing and sculpture. I had a good life.

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So why the Army Air Corps? Why become a pilot as opposed to something else?
I could be an officer! You needed two years of college to be a cadet. So I passed all the tests, the equivalent of two years of college, and I got in that way. Also, when I was younger I won a free ride in an airplane. It was a little airplane and it had side seats, so you sit on the right and the pilot is on the left. The mere fact of going up and looking out the window and everything receding… Everything was so remarkable. All the pilot did was go up, turn around and land—it was over in a minute or two minutes—but I’d never forgotten that.

Tell me about your training. You were at Luke Field in Arizona [now Luke Air Force Base], right?
Yes, I graduated from Luke. They start with 1,000 guys, and they get washed out and washed out. We ended up with 14 of our group who all got wings together. The rest of them couldn’t make it [as pilots]. The training was exciting—landing, doing aerobatics…

This is in the P-38?
They called it an interceptor. I felt more at ease on my own. I only wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to be in a bomber where if they make a mistake, I get killed. I wanted more control.

[Arnold’s son, Marc, interjects: “He was a bit naïve. He knew nothing about the military. He thought that he would get in this plane, and if the enemy came to attack us, he would defend us in the U.S.”]

Yes, like what my father used to say: You have to do what you have to do. So I thought, OK, I’ll defend my country.

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So you didn’t think you were going to go overseas?
No! It wasn’t until I got shipped out to New Jersey, and I said, Where are the airplanes? They said, Airplanes? You’re shipping out. I said, Where am I going? They said, We don’t know. That’s all classified. I ended up in North Africa. I flew on a mission the day after I arrived at the base. The first mission I went on, I ran into the Germans. It was hair-raising.

Where was your brother?
He became a radio operator. [Arnold’s brother also survived the war.]

What kinds of missions did you have in North Africa?
Oh they kept us busy. Low-level, high-level missions, taking care of the bombers so they didn’t get attacked—we had so many things we had to do. We went through an episode in the beginning where we’d be lucky if we got eight airplanes in the air. The Germans were highly skillful, wonderful, remarkable pilots. I would admire them, and yet I’m trying to kill them. If a German got shot down, and if he lived, if he didn’t have serious injury, he would be brought back to our base, our squadron. Why? What do pilots do? They talk about flying. We learned about the Me 109 [the German fighter plane]. That connection to the humanity is very important. I think that influenced me.

In what ways?
We’re Jewish and knew that the Jews were being killed over there and all the horrible stuff that was going on with Hitler… You didn’t need much more of an incentive to go out and do whatever you can do. And yet the issue of having to do what you do… I wasn’t popular with the others.

Why?
I had different ideas about war and killing. Coming back from a mission, you could break radio silence because you’re on your way back across the Mediterranean. (That was another thing—we very seldom got a guy picked up. Because every time one of ours got shot down, he would end up in the Mediterranean so we didn’t even get bodies for their families.) But coming back on the radio, you would hear guys say, Oh man, did you see that?! I wiped the hell out of that guy. They were talking about things like it was a game. They’re killing people.

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The one thing that bothered me most of all, of all the work we did: We had to do strafing—when you fly low over the hills and get targets of opportunity. We’re doing 400 miles an hour—in those days that was very fast… They’re all lined up getting lunch with their little kits, and all you have to do is get your guns going. Brrrp. Brrrp. You can’t keep them on or they get heated and burn up. So you have to give them a little juice each time. And then there’s a cannon on the nose of the plane, so that if your target is hitting the people, then the cannon comes in and does the big job. And that’s horrific. Of course, if I had to do over again, I’d do it—in spite of what I felt. In spite of my inner feelings of humanity, I’d do it again. It was like the people who go out and pick up the garbage—it stinks, it smells, but somebody has to do it. I didn’t glorify it. And when I would hear people say, You’re a hero—they didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.

Was that the hardest part? The strafing runs?
That was the hardest part for me. That didn’t make sense. Because it’s one thing to be in a fight in the air, but this… this is execution. [cries]

Was there anything good about that time? Camaraderie? Anything you look back on fondly?
No. I don’t have that. Only two of us survived. Of the 14 I graduated with, only two of us survived.

Let’s talk about those 12 men. You’ve said you hope to memorialize them with the Lest We Forget sculpture. How did that come about?
It started with my buddy Jim Hagenbach, the other survivor. After the war, we’d go to one another’s homes and spend a few days. We had a bond that superseded everything else. He said to me, We ought to do something to commemorate the 12 guys. He said that maybe what happened to them allowed us to live. Because we kept learning more [from their deaths]. If they didn’t come back and we found out what caused them to get killed, that taught us not to do it. Your learning curve is so extraordinary; even surviving five missions was challenging. He wanted to do what the French do: If a Frenchman buys the farm, they get a bottle of wine and they drink a toast. But I don’t drink.

We spent six or seven years trying to think of what could we do. I was so determined that it should be meaningful, and we made an agreement that the last one standing is absolutely obligated to think of something that would be really worthwhile. A few years later, I get a call from his wife. Jim is dying. We went to the hospital in Palm Springs. The whole family kind of moved aside so he and I could be together. We had a lot of laughter. He didn’t die more than a few hours after I left. His last words to me were: You’re the last one standing. It’s your responsibility. And I said, It’ll be done. And I carried that vow like it was the most important thing in my life.

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And that vow became the mural, and one scene from that is now the sculpture…
That scene [depicting men gathered at a briefing before a mission, at right] is just an ordinary, daily activity: to see and listen to the man explaining the mission—the squadron leader. It’s so difficult to explain the nature of this, the intenseness of that every day. Because we were always getting new guys. We’d get kills; we’d lose them. And then new guys would come on and you have to go through that all over again. And every day it’s like that. There’s a lot of tension.

The men in the sculpture, they’re not recreations of your lost comrades, though, right? They’re archetypes. They represent all the airmen from that time.
Yes. For example, there was a mid-air collision of two P-38s where the wingman turned too quickly and cut off the tails of the leader. Both died. In the mural and sculpture, I show them—“Stud” and “Lonesome.” I want to talk to the children and young people. That’s what we’re doing here. That’s why all this is here [gestures to mural and photos of sculpture].

If you could tell them something, what would you want to tell them?
It’s not to be glorified. The killing. It’s the end of civilization. It’s missing all these things where we can work things out. And how about the families? Look at how that stretches out. How that affects all of them. It was justified. Is that crazy? It’s also impossible to understand.

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Tell me about the process of getting the sculpture ready for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
I was busy night and day. During the night, I’m just as busy in my head with what had to be done. I was working like hell. At one of the earlier meetings we had with the museum, I could tell there was something wrong. I said, Look there’s an elephant in the room, and they said, What? What are you talking about? I said, Well look, you’re worried that maybe, what do we do if I’m not alive six months from now? I said, Well, all that’s been taken care of with Sutton Betti [the Loveland artist and sculptor who has helped enlarge Lest We Forget].

The sculpture is in the final phases of completion, and provided the funding comes through, will debut later this year. Do you feel like you’ve fulfilled your vow to honor those 12 men?
I’m very content. That’s it.

What about when it goes on display at the World War II Museum?
I have to confess, I hope I live long enough to see it. But Moses never got to see the Promised Land… If I do, I will positively get ahold of a bottle of wine and drink a toast to Jim Hagenbach.

Fredric Arnold’s Longmont Gallery is open to visitors on Saturdays from 1 to 3 p.m., by appointment. Email [email protected] for availability and details. Visit the Lest We Forget: The Mission website to learn more about the project and how you can contribute.

(Read our previous “Honor Roll” conversation with Iraq veteran Curt Bean.)

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If you know a Colorado veteran doing inspiring work in his or her community, let us know by emailing Kasey Cordell.


Follow senior editor Kasey Cordell on Twitter @KaseyCordell.

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