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The Death of a Reluctant Ball Turret Gunner

New America Media, Elegy, Donal Brown Posted: Sep 25, 2008

Editor's note: A ball turret gunner died last week, but not like the gunner in Randall Jarrell's poem "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." He died in the presence of a loving family and friends, and at 86, having beaten the odds. NAM contributing writer Donal Brown taught for 35 years in California's public high schools.

Richmond, Calif. Frank Prado who flew 34 missions as a ball turret gunner, died at the age of 86 in a California nursing home attended lovingly by his wife Connie and his step-daughter Tina, my daughter-in-law.

He had defied the odds. In the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that struck Germany during World War II, the ball turret gunner was isolated in a conspicuous orb on the bottom of the bomber to guard against attacks from below.

b17The B-17s were prone to anti-aircraft fire and the Luftwaffe fighter planes. Many gunners died as young men in the service of their country. It was lonely, dangerous work. Besides a gunner, Frank was the mechanic in charge of making repairs while in flight. Frank was awarded several decorations and citations during the war but never adjusted to the label, "war hero."

Maybe it was because he saw too much war. His best friend, another Latino from Texas flying in another bomber, went down while Frank watched helpless in his turret. Shortly thereafter during leave and a visit to Texas, knowing that the air force was still shuffling papers and had not got around to the task, he visited his buddy's parents to inform them of their son's death. That experience haunted him the rest of his life.

Maybe it was because he knew how many ways he could have died. Because of its drag on the aircraft, the turret was only lowered in enemy territory, but if the hydraulic system failed or was shot out and couldn't retract the turret into the aircraft, the turret would scrape against the runway during landing with grizzly results.

When Frank suffered from Parkinson's disease and dementia in his 80s, he would often cry out at night, tortured by his memories of war. One day he emerged from his fog and said to Connie, "You know. I don't think I killed anyone."

Frank's father emigrated from Mexico to Texas. Frank grew up in a family of four brothers and seven sisters. He always worked to help his family, starting at the age of six sweeping floors for a grocer. After the war, he attended the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill, but did not have enough money to live away from home. He returned to study engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, but again had to work on the side to help his family and eventually had to drop out before he earned his degree.

In 1949, Frank helped pack the family's worldly goods into a van and with his parents and nine siblings plus three nephews and one brother-in-law, drove to California. They landed in Tracy and worked in the tomato fields there. There was no shelter provided so they cleaned out a chicken coop and set up house. Frank said it was just like scenes out of John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath."

Frank became a field supervisor because he was bilingual. He soon started driving a produce truck to San Francisco and working other jobs. After 16 years of that he moved to the Bay Area to take a job with the San Francisco Chronicle, driving the delivery truck that dropped off stacks of newspapers.

He still worked in produce on his days off. After 33 years he retired from the Chronicle.

After Tina's father and mother Connie got a divorce, Connie married Frank who soon won over Tina with his kind and unassuming ways. Tina's father died five years later when Tina was 15, and when Frank died last week, Tina said, "Now I've lost two fathers."

Frank suffered from discrimination the way many others did in his era. He was upset to hear the word "Chicano" used because where he grew up in Texas, it was a racist word. He told people, "We fought to get rid of that word. Don't use it."

He encouraged Tina to get a university education she did graduate from UC Berkeley because he said, "They can't take education away from you, that and the good things you do for people."

Frank's death was fitting in many ways. He died on Mexican Independence Day, September 16. In the nursing home, Tina and Connie were playing mariachi for Frank even though he was in a coma and slipping away fast. The family's favorite nurse, a woman from the Philippines, came in and said, "Hey, Frank, come and dance with me." He smiled, a minor miracle given his unresponsiveness over the last few weeks. Ten minutes later he died.

Discrimination, war hell and poverty did not turn Frank into a hater or a poser. He learned the lessons of humility, kindness and love, content to play a quiet role in support of his family.

Articles by Donal Brown

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