By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — When Franklin “Frank” Longfellow returned from Vietnam, his entire welcoming party was two students from Centennial, his daughters holding a banner.
Next week, he’ll be cheered by hundreds at airports in Peoria and Washington as an Honor Flight participant.
Longfellow was in the Army National Guard, Navy and Air Force, and served during Korean and Vietnam War eras, in a career that lasted more than 22 years.
Longfellow grew up in Dearborn, Mich., and had a first job delivering newspapers from shortly after World War II to the dawn of the Korea War. The newspaper he was selling then was the sports-oriented Detroit Free Press.
Newsboys were supposed to shout the main headline.
“I dropped the sports headline and called out about the U.S. intervening in Korea,” he recalled. “I sold more papers than anybody that day.”
Longfellow was looking at his career options.
“Back in 1951, I was still in high school, and my buddies decided to join the Michigan National Guard,” he said.
Besides, there was a military tradition in the Longfellow family.
“My dad was in World War I, my brother was in World War II and my sister served in Korea in the WACs,” the Women’s Army Corps, Longfellow said.
One of the Guard’s tasks in the paranoid Cold War era was to defend against air attacks on Detroit’s car factories, he said.
Then “I got wanderlust,” he said.
“I enlisted in the Navy in February 1953, and spent five years in the Navy,” he said.
He studied aircraft electronics and took a break to marry his wife Charlotte back in Dearborn.
Then he was ordered to board the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, built during World War II and decommissioned shortly after the end of the war, then modernized and recommissioned in the early 1950s as an attack carrier with a different catapult system that Longfellow worked on.
He spent two-and-a-half years on the carrier, deployed to the Far East.
Then he got another assignment: another carrier.
That was too much water for Longfellow. By extending his enlistment, he was able to get his choice of bases, and ended up in helicopter training in Pensacola, Fla.
Out of the Navy, he returned to a Dearborn that was in a recession. He was able to get his old job back via veterans preference.
Then he met with an Air Force recruiter. Longfellow was able to maintain an equivalent rank to what he had in the Navy, and was stationed in Michigan.
He later worked on F-102 fighters.
But the Air Force needed instructors, so he made his first trip to Chanute Air Force Base, now closed, near Rantoul and bought a home in Champaign to get better schools for his children.
“Don’t shoot ’em, Chanute ’em” was a phrase about being sent to what was not considered a top assignment, he said.
That became irrelevant. He didn’t get to stick around, sent to North Dakota and then to Okinawa for more than two years, and then back to Chanute — only to find he was headed to Vietnam in 1971.
Most of his time was in Phan Rang, an air base used by the South Vietnamese Air Force and the U.S. Air Force. He worked in aircraft maintenance and largely was restricted to base.
The base was wedged between jungle and the South China Sea. His artist son made a huge painting from an old slide of him by the sea, but Longfellow notes he looks grim in the painting, unlike in the photo.
The war was winding down, and he was tasked to turn over equipment to the South Vietnamese.
Still, Phan Rang was harassed by enemy rockets.
“They weren’t sophisticated rockets,” Longfellow said. “They might land on an airstrip, or every once in a while a barracks, and we had to go into a bunker.”
Then he was told: “Tricky Dick (Nixon) is bringing you home,” he said, and eventually he did.
That’s when his daughters celebrated his arrival, the only ones in Champaign to do so. At a block party, he was welcomed, Longfellow said, but nobody mentioned Vietnam.
“It’s been almost 45 years since I came home from Vietnam in 1972, and now this Honor Flight,” Longfellow said. “I don’t feel like I did anything special.”
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.