The Western Union telegram arrived at the Franey residence on Forest Street in central Bakersfield on March 28, 1945.

"THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON CPL FRANEY FRANCIS L WAS KILLED ON TINIAN ISLAND 27 FEB 45 IN AN AIRPLANE CRASH"

All caps. No punctuation. All business.

The news must've crashed into the heart of Winifred Franey, the mother of five Franey boys, all serving in the U.S. armed forces during this final year of World War II.

The telegram arrived one month and a day after the death of U.S. Army Air Force Cpl. Francis "Frank" Franey, the youngest of the five sons.

But for more than 70 years after Frank's death, the Franey family remained in the dark about the exact circumstances of Cpl. Franey's death at age 22.

So when Dennis Franey, Francis' nephew, retired from a career with the county of Kern, he decided he would use his spare time to try to learn more about what happened to his uncle.

"My desire for this story to be told is not for me but for my family, especially my grandmother and father — a tribute to them, so to speak," said Dennis Franey, 66. "We all grew up hearing the stories of Francis Franey and questions about his fateful death."

Franey knew his Uncle Frankie was a gunner in a B-29 Superfortress. But he knew precious little else, including which of several possible gunner positions he held. 

"I never met him. I was born in 1952. He died in 1945," Franey said. "There always were a lot of questions." About how the accident happened. About how Frank died.

Dennis Franey may have officially been retired, but he went to work, plugging in countless internet searches, trying to piece together more details.

From college boy to aviator

Like all of his brothers, Frank had attended St. Francis School and Kern County Union High School, which later would become Bakersfield High. He went on to Bakersfield College and transferred to St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.

That's when the Army came looking. The B-29 heavy bomber program was expanding and the Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, needed well-educated crews to operate the more advanced weapons systems on board the Superfortress.

Franey enlisted in February 1944. He trained for a year, came home for Christmas leave, and then flew with the plane and the entire crew of 11 to Tinian Island, part of the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific.

Later that year, the island would be the staging ground for the B-29 atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Finding his uncle

Melissa Franey never worried about her husband's obsession with digging into the mystery surrounding his uncle's death.

"I'm his cheerleader," she said.

"We are the product of their generation. We both have a love of history."

And so Franey threw himself into the effort.

He researched Francis' service records and tried to find fellow crew members.

He searched old World War II records and came upon the Find A Grave website where someone had posted the names of the plane's crew.

Franey found a written memory of the crash by crewman Michael Kloian.

"I recall that when we completed our test flight and approached the field, that we reported our flaps and wheels down," Kloian wrote. "Then something strange happened just before landing. I reported that our wheels were going to hit a large boulder or a rise just before the landing strip.

"It was too late. When we did hit, our plane nosed down and crashed onto the field."

The B-29 immediately was engulfed in flames.

Kloian tried to get Franey out of what crews called the "barber chair," where as the Central Fire Control Gunner he used an early computer to calculate multiple factors in firing at enemy aircraft.

"I tried in vain to get our CFC gunner (Frank) out of his chair, but he was stuck and, I believe, unconscious."

Kloian headed for the rear door. "I jumped into the flames and, somehow, crawled to fresh air and safety."

When Franey read those words, for the first time he began to truly understand and tears rolled down his cheeks.

Friendship blossoms

Franey discovered the crash happened just three days after the crew arrived on Tinian.

A Maj. Dwyer and another observer were aboard to "check out" the combat readiness of the crew. Only five of the 13 survived the crash.

Left hatch gunner Michael Kloian was one of them.

When Franey found a phone number, he didn't expect Kloian would still be living.

"I called Michael and found him still alive at 93, living in Michigan and of a very sound mind," Franey recalled. "This was at the end of August 2018.

"When I talked to Michael — wow!"

Not only had Kloian survived the crash, he had tried to pull Franey from the fire. As it was, he was burned over much of his body and spent months in a hospital following the crash.

Franey felt a kind of healing beginning to come over him just by speaking with one of his uncle's fellow crew members. When the 93-year-old Army veteran invited Franey to a 504th Bomb Group reunion in Columbus, Ga., he decided he had to go, and he took his son, James, with him.

"Many questions that I have had over the last 60-plus years have been answered and I have met many new friends," Franey said.

He's acquired photos, many of which are included with this story.

But what he may treasure most are a piece of melted aluminum and a chunk of broken Plexiglas, artifacts from the wreck of the B-29 originally collected by the son of Major Dwyer and given to Michael Kloian.

At the reunion, Kloian gave the chunks of the doomed Superfortress to Franey. The Bakersfield man can hardly speak of it without choking up.

Francis had so much potential. And Franey can only wonder what might have been realized from that potential.

"Frankie was the smart one," he said of the youngest of the five Franey brothers.

And he is forever young.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(1) comment

Stephen

Usually the first thing I read in Saturday's TBC is Robert Price. This a.m. however, it was this story. Fascinating!

Noting the observation that the original telegram was all caps and no punctuation,
with Western Union telegrams, case and punctuation wern't an option. Note that in those days, with no microwave and satellite communication and limited wire line and short wave radio, capacity, particularly for overseas communication, brevity was paramount.

Speaking of telegram brevity, recall the story of businessman Haratio Spafford, composer of the well known hymn, “It Is Well with my Soul”. In 1873 his wife and daughers were sailing to Europe when an accident caused their ship to sink. His wife survived and on arrival was able to send this telegram to her husband: "SAVED ALONE".

This tragic event was his inspiration to compose this hymn.

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