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HERITAGE SERIES: WWI Ace Was Early Leader at Selfridge Field

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of articles highlighting the heritage of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

He was the pilot who lost his moustache and had to bail out over Lake St. Clair.

One of the last World War I aces, and among the first future generals, to be assigned at Selfridge Field, Major Gen. Frank O'Driscoll Hunter was an early master of not only flying pursuit aircraft, but in developing fighter aircraft tactics and strategy. Lessons learned by Hunter as a pilot in The Great War, as World War I was first known, and later honed at Selfridge Field, were employed on a grand scale in the European Theater of World War II.

Hunter first attracted notice when he was a member of the 103rd Aero Squadron in France during World War I. On his first combat flight, he shot down two German aircraft and was himself wounded, though he was able to land safely. By the end of the war, he was officially credited with eight aerial victories. By the time of his retirement at the end of World War II, he was one of the last American World War I aces still in uniform.

During World War II, Hunter was assigned command of the VIII Fighter Command, the fighter aircraft arm of the Eighth Air Force. Assigned P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft, the VIII's primary assignment during Hunter's command was protection of the bombers assigned to the 8th. VIII Fighter Command was originally stood up at Selfridge Field on Jan. 19, 1942, and re-located to England shortly thereafter, where Hunter took command.

Hunter briefly left the service after World War I, but returned to active duty in 1920. In 1922, he was assigned to the First Pursuit Group as commander of the 94th Pursuit Squadron and was with the Group when it was relocated from Texas to Selfridge Field. He would remain with the Group through 1927 and accomplished several notable accomplishments during his five years at Selfridge. Among his Selfridge-related feats, Hunter:

· Helped launch the creation of the future Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich., a former Strategic Air Command Base closed in the early 1990s. In 1923, Hunter was part of the advance party that arranged a deployment to an air field created by the First Pursuit Group on the shores of Lake Van Etten near Oscoda. There, the Group participated and "won" an extensive series of air war games, which split the north half of the state against the south in a series of maneuvers. The 1923 deployment to Oscoda was the first step in long-term relationship between Selfridge and Oscoda, which culminated in the creation of Camp Skeel, which later became known as Wurtsmith AFB.

· Broke his back as a result of a crash landing in upstate New York while on flight from Mitchel Field in New York City to Selfridge. Despite the injury, he was able to return to full duty after a several month stay in the hospital.

· Organized and led a flight of pursuit (later known as fighter) aircraft from Selfridge to the West Coast in 1925.

· Joined what was referred to as the "Caterpillar Club" after he survived an in-flight emergency in which his P-1 aircraft caught fire while flying over Lake St. Clair on March 5, 1926. Hunter initially tried to regain control of the aircraft and, as he was doing so, the flames in the cockpit grew so intense that his moustache was burned off. He parachuted out of the plane from an altitude of about 500 feet and landed safely on the frozen lake. The Caterpillar Club was the unofficial title given to those who had been forced to parachute from a disabled aircraft and survived. Hunter would also survive, via a parachute jump, a 1933 in-flight emergency. His back was broken a second time in the 1933 jump, but again he was able to return to duty.

· Made a series of after-dark take-offs and landings in April 1927 at Selfridge Field, the first pilot to test and utilize the first runway lighting system at the base.

Hunter's final posting was as commander of the First Air Force in the second half of World War II, where he was charged with the training of replacement pilots and crews for the combat theaters, as well as defense of the eastern seaboard. Also during the war, he traveled across the country with fellow World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, selling war bonds at numerous rallies and civic events.

Hunter was medically retired from the Army Air Force in 1946. He lived in Savannah, Ga., in his retirement years and died there in 1982, age 87. Hunter Army Air Field in Savannah was named in his honor.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first flight took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.