My Uncle Frank: A tribute to a local Jewish WWII hero

Major Frank Friedman served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

BY STEVEN M. FRIEDMAN

The morning of June 11, 1943, U.S. forces launched an air offensive against Japanese forces occupying Kiska, one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Japan had attacked a Naval weather station there a year earlier.

B-24 and B-25 bombers and P-38 and P-40 fighters were sent to attack Japanese positions in preparation for a later amphibious assault. Army Air Corps Captain Frank Friedman led the final flight of four P-38s, each carrying two 500-pound bombs and .50 caliber and 20 mm cannon ammunition.  

Sounds like the beginning of a World War II movie doesn’t it?

Friedman, my late uncle, was a true hero of World War II, but his modesty prevented him from ever boasting about his bravery under fire. 

After he died on July 2, 2015, an obituary noted that he was a “decorated war hero” and indeed he was. 

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I already knew that Uncle Frank has once landed his

P-38 in a lake, but I only knew a part of the story — I came to learn the fascinating history of my uncle’s war service, and of events decades later that would result in a recovery effort to raise that P-38 from the depths of an Alaskan lake. 

I always thought that Uncle Frank had been shot down in combat, but when I Googled “Frank Friedman P-38,” I learned that in that mission, he had been unable to return to his base because the weather had turned sour and he and his crew could not see the field.

Frank’s base was “socked in” as were the nearest alternative landing fields. There was no radar on the planes or on the ground. They would either have to take a chance and guess where the base was—or fly until they ran out of fuel and crash if they could not find a suitable place to land.  Frank chose to land on what was later called “Lake Friedman.”

Frank landed his P-38 in a freshwater lake on one of the Aleutian Islands. Frank remembered vividly they day he splashed down on a small icy lake, swam ashore through almost freezing water.  He got to a small island, which he described as “a rock sticking out of the water.” He stripped himself, tried to dry off himself and his clothes. He waited for the rescue team, which landed on the island with a rubber boat to remove him safely from the island.

In the 1990s, a non-profit organization called Underwater Admiralty Sciences, learned of Frank’s emergency landing in the lake and subsequent rescue. The nonprofit offered to search for, recover and restore the P-38. The team from the group included Dave Mahre, who would chronicle the story of the recovery effort (available online at http://bit.ly/Frank-Friedman-P38). The nonprofit offered Frank the chance to be the first to fly the plane if it could be safely rescued and recovered.

Frank was willing to help them and assisted them in the search of “Friedman Lake” where the plane had come down. Using his descriptions the team found the lake — and using sonar and other tools, located the wreckage of Frank’s plane. 

Although the search team hoped to find the plane intact, they found that the Army Air Corps destroyed the plane because the feared the Japanese might get to the lake and find the place.

However, parts of the plane were recovered, including the nose armament pod about six feet in length with a .50 caliber gun and the 20 mm cannon still in it. 

After the incident in the Aleutians, Uncle Frank continued with his military career, attaining the rank of major. He was part of General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation army in Japan as they worked to move Japan from a militarist society toward a brighter future as a peaceful democracy.

Frank Friedman was a World War II hero on and off the field of battle, a survivor of key battles over and around the Aleutian Islands, and later a successful businessman, husband, devoted father and a dancer and a showman.

Around Memorial Day and throughout the year, it is important that we remember with honor and respect the stories of Frank Friedman and other veterans who have served our nation.