The Amazing Story of Duane Francies

Pilot Duane Francies scored one of the most unusual victories in the history of air combat.


By Audrey E. Harris


In a bizarre dogfight between observation planes on April 11, 1945, Lieutenants Duane Francies and William Martin fire their Colt .45 pistols to bring down a Fieseler Fi-156 Storch, in Duel in the Sun, by Burt B. Mader, Jr.


No one ever worked harder than Duane Francies to get into action in World War II. His determination and bravery would eventually earn him the Distinguished Flying Cross.


Merritt Duane Francies of Wenatchee, Wash., had wanted to fly since he was a youngster. He grew up in the same town where Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon, Jr., had landed their Bellanca Skyrocket on October 5, 1931, after completing the first nonstop transpacific crossing from Japan. Francies, then 10 years old, had been there early that morning with his mother to see the fliers' triumphant belly landing on a sandy hill above the Columbia River. At age 12 he experienced his first plane ride in a Ford TriMotor at Wenatchee's now historic Fancher Field, and he was hooked on flying.


In 1940, when the local junior college offered flying instruction courses for prospective Army and Navy fliers, Francies' dream became reality. He enrolled in the first class offered by the new Wenatchee, Valley College and received his civilian pilot's training certificate on February 3, 1941, after only 37 hours in the cockpit.


On December 10,1941, three days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francies enlisted for the wars duration plus six months. He completed six weeks of basic military training at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Mo. In early April 1943, after training at nine different Army bases in six states more than two years after his initial flight training-Francies was assigned to the 5th Armored Division to replace a pilot who had been killed while flying too low. Shipped overseas 10 months later, the 5th Armored Division arrived at Liverpool, England, in February 1944. More advanced training followed at Salisbury Plains, near Plymouth. Now assigned as an artillery spotter in the 7lst Armored Field Artillery Battalion, Francies began flying Piper L-4 Cubs equipped with 65-horsepower, 4-cylinder Continental engines. On July 28, 52 days after D-Day, the 71st landed with heavy equipment at Normandy's Utah Beach.


For the next nine months, using any convenient pasture for a runway, Francies and his fellow "Grasshopper" pilots flew ahead of the 5th Armored Division, directing artillery fire and guiding the division's advancing tank column. By August 3, the 71st had experienced its first air raid at St. Hilaire, taken its first prisoners and suffered its first casualties. The air section had its first casualty on the old French airfield at Avranches, near Mont-Saint-Michel.


Moving on quickly past Vitre, Francies finally saw the kind of action in which he had dreamed of participating for so long. According to a commendation, Francies--who was then serving as an observation pilot-"clearly demonstrated his ability as a liaison pilot and also as an artillery observer." While the unit moved across France, it became extremely difficult to find suitable ground artillery observation pilots due to rough terrain and continuous forward movement. Observation pilots flew long consecutive hours over the point of the column, enabling the artillery to locate targets and giving the leading elements information about the terrain ahead and enemy positions.


The pilots of artillery observer planes were often forced to fend for themselves at dusk when the division moved up, and after Francies'

second day in action, the fliers spent the night in a field near Maigne.

Pulling their planes back under some trees and digging deep foxholes, the men waited for morning. As the battalion moved forward again, the division's two pilots and their observers flew daily air missions, pinpointing enemy positions in coordination with ground observers.


†From August 30 to September 3, Francies' unit was part of a task force that spearheaded the drive of the 5th Armored from Compigne to Conde, following German forces as they retreated toward the Belgian border.

Francies' role in that mission led to his first recommendation for the Distinguished Flying Cross. Observation pilots not only guided their divisions but also protected their units from enemy spotters. While on a reconnaissance flight in Belgium, Francies spotted two German soldiers hiding behind a hedge, observing American movements. After landing on a hillside, Francies silently crawled up from behind and took them prisoner.


In order to remain in the air for long periods without returning to base for refueling, Francies often made dangerous landings in fields along the route of march-the pilots had to land so they could borrow gas to refill depleted fuel tanks. Flying at low altitudes, Francies was always in danger of being shot down by small-arms fire-a holes in his plane testified. Speaking of his pasture landings, Francies said, "We liked to have 150 yards so we could get in and out, but we had to be careful as the Germans often had mined some of the better-looking fields."

Francies' fellow pilot Lieutenant Robert Nicol had cracked up his Piper Cub No. 141 during a takeoff on a small, rough field on August 19.


In addition to his pilot's duties, Francies volunteered some of his other skills to the war effort. Having taken some college premed courses, Francies was affectionately called "Doc" by some of his comrades, and he often gave troops first aid for minor injuries. On September 2, French civilians from the small village of Vermand came looking for a. doctor, and Francies got the job. Off he went to help deliver a baby. Later he was called upon to deliver another child outside of Aachen, Germany, in a house where pilots and mechanics were billeted. He recalled, "Later that afternoon the woman was back hoeing the fields!"


By September 13, Francies had completed 43 combat missions. He was awarded the Air Medal on September 27. On September 19 he saved an officer's life, for which he later received the Bronze Star. Spotting Lieutenant DeSales Harrison lying wounded in a field, Francies crawled to the downed forward ground observer under enemy fire and pulled him to safety. After dragging Harrison down a ditch to a safer location, Francies managed to get him to an aid station.


Francies would receive a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant on January 15. According to his promotion recommendation, "When elements of Combat Command B were cut off near Wallendorf, Germany, where a section of the Fifth had first entered Germany on September 16, Lt. Francies used his liaison plane to carry messages and blood plasma to the cut-off units, on many of these missions being forced to land in direct view of the enemy and in the midst of observed artillery fire." In that action, the main 5th Armored force had crossed a pontoon bridge into Germany at Wallendorf and passed through the outer defenses of the Siegfried Line.


Francies' battalion swung north toward Aachen sometime in late September

1944 and soon became involved in unexpectedly heavy fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. The battalion, then under the leadership of Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commanding general of the 21st Army Group, set up its headquarters at Reichenstein, an ancient castle at the extreme northern edge of the "Bulge," built during the reign of Charlemagne.


Fought during one of the worst European winters in many years, the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest resulted in 30,000 Allied casualties from four infantry divisions and two corps. During the fighting, observers helped artillery units zero in on targets, searched' for enemy targets as the unit moved forward and conducted fire missions. Francies' flight log for December 23 tells 'the story of his final reconnaissance flight for 1944, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes. Then the weather closed in--snow and no visibility. He did not fly again until the end of February 1945. On February 27 Francies flew a fire mission that lasted an hour and 10 minutes-his 88th combat mission. Pilots often made several flights a day.


As units moved forward toward Buchholz on February 27, Francies spent six hours in the air directing fire. Lieutenant Nicol's plane was hit several times that day by machine-gun fire, with little evident damage.

The next day Francies flew four more fire missions, the longest of which lasted an hour and 40 minutes. A day later, bad weather closed in, and the air observers were not able to fly again for 19 days. When flights resumed, the 95th Armored Field Artillery Battalion lost one of of itís liaison Cubs. Both the pilot and observer were killed when their Piper was shot down in flames by 10 Messerschmitt Me-109s.


By that time the 5th Armored had built an impressive record of combat achievements. It had led the encirclement that trapped a huge German force at Falaise, France, and it had been the first division to reach Luxembourg, the first to fight on German soil and the first to plunge through the Siegfried Line. For security reasons, however, the 5th's identity as a unit had been concealed until it reached Germany. The soldiers wore no unit shoulder patches, and vehicles were unmarked. The 5th was always up front, but the division's deeds received little publicity, its identity concealed under such pseudonyms as "Patton's ghost troops," the "First Army Wedge" or the "Ninth Army Spearhead."


On March 31 the unit re-entered Germany and headed for the Rhine crossing at Wessel, where Francies saw hundreds of gliders in action. He wrote that he was glad he had volunteered for the field artillery, which was now playing a vital day-to-day role in the war's progress.


On April 4 Francies flew his 105th sortie, a fire mission near Wohren, spotting for artillerymen who were shelling the city of Minden. The next day, near Haffieln, Francies picked up a 14-car Flak train containing six 105mm, two 40mm and eight 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Under his direction, his unit destroyed the target, knocking out even the tracks behind the train so that it could not retreat. All cars except the gun cars were set on fire.


At that point, Francies was flying an unarmed Piper L-4 called Miss Me!?

"I named my plane Miss Me!? because I wanted the Germans to do that, the reason for the exclamation point," Francies explained. "But I also wanted someone back home to 'miss me,' so there was the question mark."


On April 11 Francies and his observer, Lieutenant William Martin, took part in Francies' 142nd mission and one of the most unusual aerial actions of the war. The 71st Battalion was now the closest American force to Berlin-48 miles. Out on an observation mission some 100 miles west of the capital city, Francies noticed a German motorcycle, with the customary sidecar, speeding along a road near some of the 5th Armored tanks. When he and Martin went in to take a closer look at the motorcycle, they also noticed a German Fieseler Fi-156 Storch artillery spotting plane about 700 feet above the trees.


Francies later wrote: "The German Storch, with an inverted 8 Argus engine, also a fabric job and faster and larger than the Miss Me!?, spotted us and we radioed, 'We are about to give combat.' But we had the advantage of altitude and dove, blasting away with our Colt .45s, trying to force the German plane into the fire of waiting tanks of the 5th.

Instead, the German began circling."


Firing out the side doors with their Colts, the American crewmen emptied their guns into the enemyís windshield, fuel tanks and right wing. Francies had to hold the stick between his knees while reloading. He late recalled, "The two planes were so close I could see the Germans'eyeballs, as big as eggs, as we peppered them."


After the Storch pilot made a low turn, the plane's right wing hit the ground, and the plane cartwheeled and came to rest in a pasture. Setting down nearby, the Americans ran to the downed plane.


The German pilot dived behind a huge pile of sugar beets to hide from them, but the observer, who had been hit in the foot, fell to the ground. When Francies removed the observer's boot, a .45 slug fell out.

Then Martm fired warning shots that brought the pilot to his feet, hands raised. Francies confiscated the pilot's wings and Luftwaffe shoulder insignia, as well as a Nazi battle flag.


"I never found out their names," Francies later recalled. "They could have been important, for all I know. We turned them over to our tankers about 15 minutes later after the injured man thanked me many times for bandaging his foot. I think they thought we would shoot them."


The 5th Armored stood poised at the River Elbe, ready to push toward Berlin, unaware that the Soviets had been designated to the make first entry into the German capital. Francies and Martin flew point as the unit approached the city, anxious to view the Berlin skyline and hoping to later lead the 5th Armored there. From their ringside seat above the area, they crossed the River Elbe, not realizing that Americans were not supposed to penetrate that far east.


After the Americans set down on the Soviet side of the Elbe, they encountered four or five men in gray greatcoats riding steppe ponies-Soviet soldiers. When the Soviets saw the white star on the Cub, however, they kept their distance and took no action. Ten minutes later Francies flew the Cub back to the 71st Battalion.


During the next eight days, the 5th completely defeated the famous Von Clausewitz Panzer Division, which attempted to escape south to reach the Hartz Mountains. That defeat resulted in the capture of 3,752 German prisoners, 555 Germans killed, and the capture of 23 tanks, 97 large artillery pieces, 41 small artillery pieces, and 324 trucks and small vehicles.


By April 24, 1945, Francies had been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross a second time. After the war, however, it seemed that the recommendation for Francies' Distinguished Flying Cross was buried among unit battle histories until Cornelius Ryan's best-selling 1966 ,book The Last Battle publicized the story of how Lieutenants Francies and Martin shot down the Storch with their Colts. A footnote in Ryan's book noted that the extraordinary feat had never been acknowledged by the U.S.

Department of Defense, even though Francies had been recommended twice for the DFC. Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, of Washington, took up Francies' case in 1967.


Captain Merritt Duane Francies finally received his DFC at Holman Field in St. Paul, Minn., 22 years after the incident. Meanwhile, Francies had become a commercial pilot and served in the Army Reserve. He also was acting executive officer of the Army Reserve Battalion, 103rd Aviation Company. Francies was recalled to active duty in the Korean War and served for two more years-part of a career that totaled 29 years in active and reserve flying units.



Sergeant Al Oman, who served as Francies' mechanic, stands (at right) next to a Piper L-4 like the one Francies flew on an eventful spotting mission in April 1945.


Artist's rendering of the aerial combat.