By Terry Frei
Denver Post Sports Writer
On one level, this is about a football player who became a high school, college
and National Football League coach; and at age 76, still is a scouting consultant for the Denver Broncos. But on a Veterans
Day weekend 55 years after the end of World War II, it really is about all Americans who served in the conflict.
This is about my father, who has had a remarkable life in shaping the lives
of a handful of famous coaches and players, and many more whose names you wouldn't recognize. But it is meant to represent
all those who put on uniforms in the fight to stop Adolf Hitler and the forces of Japan.
Veterans Day isn't just when we don't have to put quarters in the parking
Jerry Frei was a photo reconnaissance pilot in the Army Air Corps from
1943-45, flying alone in a Lockheed P-38 fighter plane over Japanese targets in the Pacific. The mission was to take pictures
and get the film back to the landing strip. His group consisted of 20 pilots at any given time, and about 35 pilots rotated
through during his tour.
Last week, sitting in his den in Englewood, he flipped through the commemorative
26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron book, pointed to pilots' pictures and counted, slowly and with remembrance, from one to
eight. Eight killed in action. Eight fathers, or potential fathers, who didn't make it back.
Yet, he said, "we did
not consider it a very dangerous profession. When I think of what people went through down there on the ground, and how they
lived, and how they ate, and how they slept, and how they were in combat, we weren't in a dangerous profession."
He was trying
to explain that he was "sheepish" about talking about this, especially for a story. He was no hero, he said, and
he knows others had it worse. "I'm proud," he said, "but I don't claim a lot of credit for winning World War
That's the point. It was a group effort. His story is unique, yet startlingly typical at the same time. And so is something
else, shamefully: Until last week, his baby boomer son never had really sat down and talked with him at length about his World
War II experience. Or even said "thanks."
I had been to reunions of the football teams he coached, from the 1949
Grant High School Generals to the Vietnam War-era University of Oregon Ducks, hearing men such as Dan Fouts, George Seifert,
John Robinson, Bruce Snyder, Ahmad Rashad, Norv Turner and Gunther Cunningham tell me how important he was to them.
But this is different.
This is something he never really talked about much over the years, with his players or with his children. And in this instance,
he represents millions in his generation.
He was 16 when he was graduated from high school in Stoughton, Wis., about 15 miles from Madison. He went to the University
of Wisconsin to play football for coach Harry Stuhldreher, the quarterback in Notre Dame's Four Horsemen. He was a 185-pound
lineman. When he was a 17-year-old freshman, he worked all night at Toby and Moon's restaurant, then was awakened by his roommate,
Ken Currier, and told: "They bombed Pearl Harbor!" His response was typical on that Sunday morning. "Where's
As the United States entered the war against the Axis powers, as the bad news poured in through 1942,
Jerry Frei was a sophomore guard on the 1942 Wisconsin team that went 8-1-1 behind Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch (No.
40, next to No. 65, Jerry Frei), losing to Iowa and tying Notre Dame.
The Badgers beat Ohio State, but the final Associated Press poll had the
Buckeyes No. 1 and Wisconsin No. 3.
The draft age was 20 until late in 1942. As did most college students of the
time, after Pearl Harbor, virtually all the Badgers had signed up for the Enlisted Reserve Corps in various branches.
The theory was they'd be called up after graduation ... or when needed, whichever came first. They all sensed it wouldn't
be long. Stuhldreher arranged for Frei to sign up for an Army Air Corps reserve unit, because it was based in Madison.
The Wisconsin coach told his guard that because he was so young, only 18, he probably wouldn't be called into the service
until at least after his junior season. The induction notice came in February 1943. Frei had been in college three semesters.
He still was only 18.
"At that point, we all wanted to go," Frei said. "All your friends were going, and you
were not going to stay in school." He was in the Army Air Corps, on his way to becoming a pilot, almost by accident.
"I had no inclination, no great desire to be a pilot," he said. "The first time I ever was in an airplane was
my first lesson in training."
The Wisconsin Badgers scattered. The 1943 Badgers would have only one -- one! -- player
on the roster who had played for Wisconsin in '42. All the others were in the service. That was typical. Hirsch and several
others went to a Marine unit, training at the University of Michigan, and played for the Wolverines in '43.
Jerry Frei and Ken
Currier (No. 64, on the other side) were among the Badgers who entered the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the
Air Force. "It was laughingly referred to as the Brown Shoe Air Corps," he said, "because we wore brown shoes
with Army uniforms. The uniforms didn't turn blue until it became the Air Force."
As the war raged in Europe and
the Pacific, he went through Army basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas; then Air Corps indoctrination and training in Arizona,
California, Kansas and, of all places, La Junta, Colorado. Ultimately, he ended up in Coffeyville, Kan., graduating with "44E"
- the fifth group in 1944 to be trained in P-38 reconnaissance flights.
(There still were a few bugs in the system, which gives rise to the military
acronym "snafu.") Jerry Frei and his buddies were assigned to a photo recon group in Europe, loaded onto a troop
train and sent to Savannah, Ga., their stopping-off point for Europe. But when they got to Savannah, they were told they instead
would be going to the Pacific - and were sent right back on the train, back across the country to San Francisco.
By then, a four-man
group of buddies from "44E" was tight, and assigned together because of the accident of the alphabet -- Frei; Ed
Crawford, from Texas; Madison Gillaspey, from Iowa; and Don Garbarino, from Oregon. They ended up with the 26th Photo at Biak
Island, off the coast of New Guinea, in advance of the invasion of the Philippines.
They were told their tour would be for one
year and 300 combat flying hours. When they arrived, they also were very popular among their peers, because they were the
rare P-38 pilots who had flown B25s in training. Those planes, the "Fat Cats," were the only ones that could be
used to fly to Australia for supplies -- including meat, milk and beer -- and the four new arrivals often did that duty, which
didn't count as combat time.
On Sept. 18, 1944, three months after his 20th birthday, Frei flew the first of his 67 combat missions. In a shoulder holster,
he carried a .45-caliber revolver. His fighter plane had all the triggers for the usual guns, but no guns. Usually, two planes
were on the mission, in case one plane's cameras failed.
"They would pretty much leave you alone," he said of the Japanese.
"You could get anti-aircraft fire, but as you looked out the back window, you could see it behind you. Most of the times,
we were coming in high and staying for such a short period of time. You went down one direction, back over the target in the
other direction and got out of there.
"As soon as you got back into radio range, you would tell 'em, "Yeah, I got
pictures, I'm on the way home, I'll be there about such-and-such time.' You'd get back and you'd buzz the home area, saying,
"Here I am, come and get me at the airstrip and get my pictures out of the cameras.'
"The newer you were
and the younger you were, the harder you buzzed, because you didn't think you were going to live, anyway. But as soon as you
got halfway through, you said, "My God, I'm going to make it, maybe I'm going to last.' That's when you started flying
more conservative, straight and level. One of the guys who came over with us and went to another squad got killed buzzing.
He hit a palm tree with his tail, and that calmed down a lot of people."
The old hanging folder is Frei's flight record,
and it sits in the top drawer of his desk at home, next to the video machine he still uses to look over college football prospects.
You can picture a sweating clerk typing information onto the sheet after every mission 55 years ago, lining it up on the correct
line, making sure the carbon paper is in place. The sheets list 67 missions and targets with names such as Davao, N. Halmeras,
Mindanao, Lianga Bay, Babuyan Island, Cape Bojeador, Solvec Cove, Cagayan Valley, even Wenchou, China.
Twice, Frei was
sent to Australia for rest leave. The second time, the squad moved from Biak Island to Lingayen, on the Lingayen Gulf to the
north of Manila. When he finally caught up with his squadron, he got off the transport plane at Lingayen and noticed one of
the 26th's planes taking off.
"I asked one of our people, "Who's that?' " Frei said. "He said it
was Madison Gillaspey, and he was going on a low-level mission to Ipo Dam. I went over to the squadron area, to the others'
tent. It always was Ed Crawford, Don Garbarino, Madison Gillaspey and me. But while I was gone, they'd moved another pilot
in with them when they got to Lingayen, so I was going to go get a cot and be the fifth."
He didn't have to get the
"Madison Gillaspey never came back," Frei said. "No one ever knew what happened, but we lost two planes over
The Iowan was one of the eight pilots killed. They were the victims of anti-aircraft fire or mechanical
failure or ... who knows? Sometimes, like Gillaspey, they just didn't make it back. After the war, located dogtags and wreckage
provided some answers. Other pilots' deaths never were explained.
The toughest days were March 22, 1945, when Frei flew two separate missions, to Northwest Manila and to the Cagayan Valley
(the squadron received a group citation); and April 15, when he flew an eight-hour mission from Lingayen, to a guerrilla airstrip
for refueling, then to Wenchou, the harbor port across the East China Sea from Japan. It was important work, much of it in
support of the 6th Army, and short-term tension.
"But again," he said, "I emphasize the point that mine was
a nice war, if there was such a thing. I didn't hurt anybody. I didn't kill anybody or shoot anybody. I didn't get shot at
a lot, although we did go through (Japanese) bombing raids when we were on the ground. But I also know what other men were
going through, and it was a lot worse."
The 26th was ticketed to move to Okinawa in July 1945, and the squadron
had stopped flying to prepare for the move. Frei had flown 66 missions and 296 combat hours. But the operations officer said
there was one mission available, to the Batan Islands, north of Luzon.
(The islands aren't to be confused with the Bataan Peninsula.)
On June 28, Frei flew the two-plane mission, and his partner in another plane used the cameras to take a picture of him flying
back to Lingayen. It is an innocent-looking picture today, a single plane above the ocean. Yet the pilot wasn't just heading
back to the airstrip. Figuratively speaking, he was heading home. Soon, he was on a troop transport, heading to San Francisco.
Two days from the West Coast, the ship's speakers blared the news about an atom bomb and Hiroshima.
He married longtime Stoughton
girlfriend Marian Benson on Dec. 25, 1945, re-enrolled at Wisconsin and was a regular on Stuhldreher's 1946 and '47 Badgers
teams. He stayed in touch with pilot buddy Garbarino, who always had raved about Oregon. "I had grown up where it was
cold, really cold, and until I got in the service, I didn't realize the whole world wasn't like that," Frei said. So
after he was graduated from Wisconsin - thanks to football, the GI Bill and his wife's right-out-of-college teaching salary
- the couple loaded up the car and drove to Portland. "Don Garbarino hadn't told me it rained a lot," he said.
Within a week,
he had a job as an assistant coach and teacher at Portland's Grant High, notable now as the school where "Mr. Holland's
Opus" was filmed. Frei soon was the head coach at Portland's Lincoln High, was an assistant at Willamette University
in Salem and then joined the the University of Oregon staff in 1955. He was there 17 seasons, first as an assistant to the
legendary Len Casanova, then as head coach.
During the Vietnam era, many Oregonians claimed his program didn't have
"discipline" because he allowed players such as Bobby Moore (now Ahmad Rashad) and Denver resident Tom Graham to
wear their hair as they pleased; or didn't tell his players to stay out of campus politics and the antiwar movement. One of
the reasons, among the many, was that at age 20, he had been flying over Japanese targets, and he wasn't going to treat 20-year-olds
as children. I know they appreciated it, because they've told me that over the years, including at a tribute weekend in Eugene
organized by Fouts.
The Oregon campus, as many were around the nation, was a cauldron of dissent. Dr. Charles Johnson, the school's president,
was a conciliator caught between rebelling students and irate Oregonians. While being treated for depression, he drove his
Volkswagen head-on into a lumber truck, and most considered it suicide. Amid the tumult, the Ducks finished second in the
Pacific 8 in 1970, beating both USC and UCLA and ninth-rated Air Force. When Frei quit two months after the 1971 season, the
radical student body president issued an eloquent statement of support, the newspaper publisher came to our house, and the
Eugene Register-Guard ran letters to the editor saying his battle with some boosters shouldn't have been allowed to cause
Stanford coach John Ralston was moving to the Broncos, and he hired Frei as his offensive line coach.
He moved on to Tampa Bay and Chicago before returning to the Broncos when Dan Reeves became head coach. He has been a coach,
a scout, the director of college scouting and - now - a consultant who still loves to watch practice and scouting tape, especially
of the offensive linemen.
Around him, he hears the talk about the overdue gratitude and acknowledgment of what his generation
did for us. And there's no other way to put it: We're not all that sure we could have done it, or that today's youth would
be as courageous. Maybe it was about naivete. Maybe knowing the horrors of war, in a time of more destructive weaponry, is
a good thing. But maybe we're just not as brave, either.
"I think all of us didn't feel like were being different," he
said. "Or that we were doing anything spectacular. Everybody did it. It wasn't, "Look at me, I'm a soldier.' I don't
think anyone was concerned about memorials or anything like that. I think everyone was looking at it like, "I did what
I had to do.' Everyone who survived gave a big sigh of relief, and felt sad for those who didn't."
The least we
can do is say "thanks."
To them all.