Normally, Veterans Day is celebrated Nov. 11, but because Veterans Day falls on a Saturday this year, this federal holiday will be observed Friday, Nov. 10.
As a veteran, I always look forward to this day. I especially enjoy reading heroic stories about our veterans.
I had the good fortunate recently to meet one of our many military heroes, Francis Albert “Toad” Heinz Jr., who was a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War.
Korean War veterans flew some of our early jet fighters.
Heinz, originally from Indiana who now makes his home in Norton Shores, recently turned 91. He flew F-84 Thunderjets, which were the U.S. Air Force’s primary fighter-bomber plane during the Korean War.
Those people who know Heinz call him Toad, a nickname given to him by his grandfather.
Heinz’s love of flying began at an early age when he was still in high school. In 1943, a U.S. military recruiter came to his school seeking enlistees for flight training. Heinz signed up, but since he was only 16, he couldn’t be called up for active duty during World War II until he was 18.
So, instead, Heinz was placed in the Army Air Corps Reserves unit, which enabled him to finish high school and to begin taking college classes.
In March 1945, Heinz was called to active duty to receive flight training. But as World War II ended later that year, Heinz was no longer needed as a pilot, so he resigned from the Army program and returned to college.
After college, he took a job with Bendix Aviation, where he worked testing jet engines. But his heart was still set on being an aviator.
“I thought to myself that if there was another war, I wanted to fly,” Heinz recalled.
There was another war. The U.S. military in 1950 sent troops to South Korea to aid that country’s effort against North Korea, which had invaded South Korea. Eventually, thousands of American troops were sent to South Korea.
Heinz got his opportunity to be a pilot. He was able to get his commission transferred to the Air Force, and in August 1950 he began flight training, flying F-80s, the first jet used by the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force needed volunteers to train in the F-84 jets, and Heinz didn’t hesitate to volunteer.
Before being shipped to South Korea, Heinz married to his sweetheart, Mary. It was while he was in Korea that he learned that he had become a father.
After completing flight training, Heinz was sent to South Korea in January 1952 to fly F-80 Thunderjets. He mainly flew bombing missions, such as taking out North Korea’s railroad tracks. He flew 100 missions in 10 months during his tour of duty.
There were some close calls during some of those missions. After one mission, Heinz landed his plane, thinking he had escaped any trouble. That was until a crew member yelled, “Hey Toad, you’re now a combat veteran.” Heinz then was shown where a bullet from a Russian MiG had ripped through the tail section of the plane.
One of his most harrowing experiences occurred when Heinz was flying one of 120 F-84 jets sent to bomb a North Korean military academy. They were met by MiG fighters waiting to ambush the Americans.
One of the MiGs managed to hit one of his wingmen. Heinz turned his jet around to confront the MiG. “When they shot my wingman, I was scared and pissed,” Heinz recalled. He believed he hit the MiG, but didn’t see it go down.
He and the wingman made it safely back to the base. Heinz later would be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery.
On another occasion, Heinz was on a mission to take out a North Korean power grid. That mission was a success, but the bombing also took out lights to his base, which was also on the grid. “We didn’t have power for three days,” he said.
Heinz finished his tour in November 1952. He wanted to be a flight instructor, but he was told he needed 1,000 hours to qualify. The officer in charge of the training told Heinz he could become an instructor after getting 1,000 hours of flying. He got the hours, but the officer who promised him a position was killed, so when his commission expired, Heinz returned to work for Bendix Aviation at its missile plant.
He also did some contract work for NASA, where he got to work on the first moon expedition.
Heinz retired in 1986. He and his wife, Mary, now enjoy spending time with their four children.
Heinz is indeed an American hero.
— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist