One of America's last fighter pilot aces of World War II was laid to rest Friday morning in Missoula.
Under dripping skies and a flyover by four F-15 fighter jets at the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery on Tower Street, Frank McCauley of Hamilton was accorded full military honors by both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
McCauley, 100, was believed to be the oldest World War II ace before his death June 1 at the Marcus Daily Hospice Center in Hamilton.
Friday’s service came 11 days short of a year since another graveside ceremony and flyovers by a B-1 and a B-25 bomber, as Missoula’s David Thatcher was honored across town at Sunset Memorial Cemetery. Thatcher, who died at age 94 on June 22, 2016, was the penultimate survivor of the fabled Doolittle Raiders of World War II.
The F-15's at Friday's ceremony came from Mountain Home Air Force base in Idaho. The flyover is an honor accorded only a select few veterans such as three- and four-star generals, Medal of Honor recipients, prisoners of war, and aviators like McCauley with at least one aerial victory.
Born in Ohio a few months before the U.S. entry into the first world war, McCauley joined the Army after graduating from Michigan State University in 1939. He had a lifelong love of flying, and at the first chance he got he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps, which became the Air Force.
McCauley flew a P-47 Thunderbolt Fighter on 46 missions in support of B-17 bombers against German counterparts. All were under Missoula native Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke, who commanded the 56th fighter group.
It was a group, said Missoula historian Stan Cohen, that was "extremely famous. Beyond famous."
The 56th included Gabby Gabreski, the leading American air ace in Europe during World War II.
"Frank was up there with the best of the best," Cohen said. "He flew with the greatest fighter group in the war, as far as I'm concerned."
McCauley earned ace fighter pilot status by shooting down 5½ enemy aircraft. The first came over the Schweinfurt-Regensburg on Aug. 17, 1943, when he and fellow pilot Jerry Johnson combined to shoot down a Messerschmitt Bf110. Each was awarded half a kill. McCauley added one more that day, and Johnson had three.
At a Memorial Day gathering at the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History in Missoula, McCauley said his most rewarding mission was the last one, on Oct. 14, 1943. He saved dozens of American lives by shooting down at least three enemy aircraft attempting to attack a set of B-17’s, each with a crew of 10.
“I made a decision, OK, I’m low on gas. I’m going down,” McCauley said.
He described how he plunged his plane, nicknamed "Rat Racer," into the fray, taking fire a number of times and escaping only after blasting through the fireball created by an enemy plane’s wreckage.
McCauley earned the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals. In 2015, at age 98, McCauley was flown across the country in a Learjet with wife Bobbie to join more than three dozen other fighter pilots. In Washington, D.C., each received a Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the 1,447 American Fighter Aces, a title reserved for those who shot down five or more enemy aircraft in combat during the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam.
McCauley trained hundreds of new pilots for combat after active duty in Europe. He left the service and married Bobbie in 1945. Following a career in construction, he retired with his family to the Bitterroot Valley in 1974. McCauley is survived by wife Bobbie; sons Craig, Kirk and Kevin; and step-daughter Nancy Cook, along with three grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
He spoke of his love of flying and the adrenaline that came with it in a 2014 interview with the Ravalli Republic.
“I was never afraid,” McCauley said. “I was eager to get into that plane. I enjoyed every bit of it. I really did.”