As Printed from the "Daily Sentinel" on July 29, 2004. It is the daily newspaper of the City of Nacogodches, Texas.
The Oldest Town in Texas
The story below remains the property of "The Daily Sentinel" and has been copied as printed.
The price of freedom
Local veteran Gerald French said he believes in what the United States is doing in Iraq, but he won't be voting to re-elect President George W. Bush. ...
Retired Maj. Gerald French holds a frame containing some of the insignia he earned during his 23-year flying career in the U.S. Air Force. (Andrew D. Brosig/Sentinel staff)
Veteran of three wars knows price of freedom
By JENNIFER VOSE, Sentinel Staff
Local veteran Gerald French said he believes in what the United States is doing in Iraq, but he won't be voting to re-elect President George W. Bush.
"Bush is good for the active military, but not for the veterans," he said.
While French, a three-war veteran who celebrates his 80th birthday today, said he stands behind Bush's decision to move troops into Iraq, he also said he is disappointed with Bush's position on legislation that could improve benefits for veterans.
However, French hasn't decided to vote for John Kerry, either, because he's not pleased with Kerry's stance on Vietnam.
The nation's presence in Iraq, the war on terrorism ... it's all being debated in the Democratic National Convention this week, and French definitely has his own political opinions.
While French is no longer on the front lines, he continues to fight for the rights of those he served with by remaining politically active, he said. He corresponds with legislators regarding bills affecting veterans, and fights for the rights that he and his colleagues were promised when they enlisted, he said.
He said he hopes for a swift resolution to the war in Iraq, but at the same time, after spending a career in the military, he said he understands that what is being done is what is necessary, just as it has been in the past.
"I'm a military man, and freedom isn't free," he said. "We have to continuously fight for it."
After serving in three wars - World War II, Vietnam and Korea - French knows the price of freedom. But although he's been presented the V for Valor for heroism, he insists that he's no hero.
"To me, the heroes are still over there. They didn't come home," French said. "And another category of heroes includes those who are over there, right now, fighting for our freedom - while I'm sitting here enjoying it."
He said he doesn't believe that patriotism is lacking in today's youth - just that it has not been cultivated. There has been a war in basically every generation, he said, and those wars (or simply military training and service to the country in times of peace) have strengthened men.
"It teaches a man courtesy, responsibility and discipline," he said.
In peacetime or at times of war, enforced military service could be a benefit to youth, he said.
"It teaches you a lot," French said. "The people fighting this war, right now, are volunteers, but what I'd like to see more than anything else is to have the draft reinstated and get these kids off the street. A tour of service is the best thing for these young people."
French smiles when he says it was "luck and prayer" that kept him from receiving the Purple Heart. He's still quite proud to have never been wounded in service. French joined the Army Air Corps in June 1941. A patriotic man, he said that at the time, the opportunity to fly airplanes was as much an attraction as service to the country.
"I was living in Denver and getting ready to go to business college when I saw the B-17s flying over," French said. "I knew that was what I wanted to do."
In 1941, at the age of 16, French lied about his age in order to join the Army Air Corps.
He proved to be a fast study in the aircraft that intrigued him. At the age of 18, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and pilot, and a year later he became a flight commander. He was recognized in the Air Force Times as the youngest commander of World War II, and became the first of the 450th Bombardment Group to complete 50 missions. He was the only member of the 720th Squadron to complete all of his missions with all 10 men.
On memorable incident during World War II earned French a belated Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded in April 1952. On Jan. 24, 1944, French and his crew were involved in a mid-air collision with a German aircraft. The collision knocked the right rear stabilizer off French's plane. A wing separated from the German plane, causing it to crash. French landed his plane safely.
French said he was written up for a Silver Star following the event, but turned it down when he learned that his co-pilot could not be similarly recognized. He said he could not have come through the situation without assistance, and could not accept an individual award.
Earlier this summer, the V for Valor was added to French's Distinguished Flying Cross for the heroism he exhibited in service to his country.
His tour of duty took him to Europe during World War II, and he finished his 50th mission on D-Day and returned to the United States.
French's military career spanned 23 years, and during that time he served the country in two more wars - in Korea and Vietnam. In the Army Air Corps and later in the Air Force, French saw change in the world and in the military.
"I saw much more blood in Korea than I did during World War II," French said.
After one flight, he said, he landed to discover that his plane had taken 47 hits from enemy fire.
He talked about a man he met during the Korean War who was 19 but had not yet signed up for selective service. French notified officials, and the man was soon drafted and taken into the service.
"Two or three years later, I saw him again, and he was truly a man," French said.
In Vietnam, French said he flew planes carrying fresh troops and transported "the wounded and (those in) caskets" back to the United States.
Retirement from the Air Force didn't dull French's love of flying. He spent the next 34 years working in commercial aviation.
"I was a pilot, and I loved to fly," French said.
After eight decades and three wars, French retains his sense of humor and his love for aircraft.
"They say old pilots never die," he joked. "They just buzz off."