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Ode to Joe -- Memories of a WWII Aviator

By Bob Herklotz


Prolog - I wrote this piece for an old friend. It appeared in a Western New York newspaper many years ago. 

I wanted to honor an aviation buddy who played a big part in my early flying days in the Western New York area many years ago.

While the names and places may not sound familiar to most of you, I know, as aviators, you’ll identify with the aviation theme and what the word aviation means to us. This is really a story about aviation war heroes, old airplanes and old flying buddies that carved the mold for what we embrace today.

Here’s that story ……..

Lockport, NY lost a native son and WWII aviator last week. I lost a flying partner and good friend.

I met Joe decades ago when we both worked at the Harrison Radiator West plant in Lockport, NY. We became friends with a common interest – flying.

It was the 1970’s -- I was an aspiring student pilot and Joe was a WWII veteran flyer who held me on the edge of my seat with tales of his war exploits.

Staff Sergeant Joseph Frombgen served as an engineer and tail gunner on a Martin B-26 Marauder bomber, “The Bad Penney” in the 386th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force in World War II. 

He completed over 70 missions over Nazi-dominated Europe in all kinds of weather and endured almost constant pounding from German anti-aircraft fire.

Joe was there in the first wave of bombing runs over Normandy in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 – D Day and in most of the other major battles of WWII including “The Battle of the Bulge”. He was awarded the Air Medal, several Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary achievement as an engineer-gunner on a B-26 Marauder bomber”.

Unlike some veterans, Joe really enjoyed talking about his wartime flying days and his tales were fascinating to a “still wet behind the ears” pilot -- I soaked up these tales for hours at a time. 

Joe really brought this era to life and he did this in his modest and humble way – he knew he was just a part of a larger plan.

As the years passed, we collaborated and purchased our first plane together – a 1946 “Ercoupe”, a little two-seat low wing beauty that we would fly over Lockport and all of Western New York.

We would marvel at the special lofty view we were given – seeing the beauty of the earth from this vantage point was always special.

The “Coupe” could be flown with the canopy slid down into the fuselage for that “open air convertible” effect – this was real grass roots flying.

When I was flying, Joe would take “snapshots” with his “Instamatic” camera. Sometimes, he would hold the camera at arms length and snap photos of us piloting that little bird. Many of those self-portraits came out just fine. Those were special times and I will always cherish them.

 Right column please

Time flew and we sold the “Coupe” and dissolved the plane partnership but not our friendship. I bought a slightly larger and faster aircraft for cross county trips and Joe bought an ultra light and then another Ercoupe. 

Joe and I still managed to fly together whenever we could, still marveling at how lucky we were to be up there. 

In the late ‘80’s, I transferred to the GM Saturn plant in Tennessee but Joe and I stayed in touch. We would get together to fly and reminisce about the “flying the Coupe” days whenever I managed to get up to New York. 

We would exchange gifts over the years – mostly aviation related. Once I received a slender wooden crate over 8 feet long. It was an old wooden propeller from a vintage biplane. He never would accept reimbursement on the shipping costs. 

Again the years passed. There would be less flying and more reminiscing – the veteran aviator was getting up in years and was pretty much confined to his home. 

Visiting Joe was like going back in time. We would pour over photos of days gone by surrounded by still larger photos of WWII aircraft (mostly B-26 Marauders) hanging on the walls -- gently sharing space with family pictures. 

There are so many memories that float in my consciousness since Joe’s passing, like eating homemade apple pie at the airport restaurant in Batavia (the restaurant is long gone), and the low approaches over the hills at the Dansville airport.

After landing at Dansville, we would take a short walk to a “truck stop” diner where we would partake in the  “sirloin burgers” and joke on the walk back to the airport about the sirloin part. They were tasty though and I wonder if they’re still serving them after all these years.

Yes, there are scores of great memories that will linger with me for at least a lifetime.

The early “Coupe” years were special times for us – the WWII aviation hero and the green horn pilot who absorbed the vet’s war stories like a thirsty sponge.

Joe’s war history and passing will go unnoticed by most with the exception of his surviving family and friends.  But to me, these were major events. He was a war hero, my partner and loyal pal and I will never forget him.

Thank you Joe, for the memories of a time and era gone by. When I’m looking down and marveling at the beauty of the earth from my lofty and privileged seat like we did so many times together and so many years ago, I’ll be thinking of you. Because I know you’ll be looking down on me -- with a marvel and wonder that belongs to you and me alone. Goodbye for now old pal.