Contributed by Mrs Tim Hurley, who’s husband had been in 19th BG at March Field in 1938 and knew Frank Kurtz. DL 02-02-97
Frank Kurtz 1935
LARGER THAN LIFE
War hero Frank Kurtz lived to excel – and did
He was, in his day, a storied figure -- Olympic medalist, renowned aviation pioneer and World War II combat hero. Frank Kurtz was blessed with that rare combination: remarkable gifts and unquenchable drive. "The essence of the man was his setting these incredible goals for himself to reach and never looking back," says his daughter, actress Swoosie Kurtz. "He never sat on his laurels even for a second." At his death on Oct. 31, at 85, of a head injury suffered a year before in a fall, time had reduced him to little more than a historical footnote. But in that footnote reside the details of an amazing -- and instructive -- life.
“He always looked ahead and never looked back”, says wife of 57 years, Margo shown with Kurtz and the Swoose II at Lakeland, FL, AAF in 1943
Kurtz's childhood provided some lessons in raw self-reliance that, while painful, would in many ways serve him well. He was born in Davenport, Iowa, the third child of Frank Kurtz Sr., an insurance salesman, and his wife, Dora. As a boy, Frank Jr. moved to Kansas City, Mo., where his parents divorced. At 12, he left home, mostly to escape beatings by his stepfather. To make a living, he sold newspapers. "From an early age, Frank had a formula," his widow, Margo, 81, recalls. "If he was going to do something, he was going to be the best."
Kurtz left with reporter on the Swoose in 1942.
He rarely failed. Soon the brash youngster was being featured in the Kansas City Star as one of its top newsboys. But his enthusiasms reached beyond business. As a small boy he had once visited a swimming pool and decided to try the diving board. The fact that he didn't know how to swim didn't deter him. By his teens he had grown so accomplished that he impressed Olympic champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. The future Tarzan encouraged Kurtz to head to Los Angeles to train with famous diving coach Clyde Swendsen.
Kurtz promptly hitchhiked to L.A. and met Swendsen, who took such a liking to the boy that he virtually adopted him. After finishing Hollywood High School, Kurtz went on to join the diving team at USC. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, he won a bronze medal. Shortly after the Games, though, he won something more precious: his future wife, Margo Rogers, a fellow student at USC. Courtship was the one thing in his life that gave the usually audacious Kurtz second thoughts, perhaps because it was the one thing that could put his sense of independence in jeopardy. "We fell in and out of being engaged for four or five years," says Margo. "But we got rid of all our problems before we were married."
Swoosie posing with her dad in Miami Beach in 1948
Kurtz went on to be a member of the Olympic diving team in 1936 and 1940 (though the Games were canceled that year because of World War II). But his new passion had become flying, which he'd taken up at 16. By his 20s, he was busy setting speed records, vying with such aviation legends as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Flying an open cockpit plane in 1935, he set a record from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Washington and back to L.A.
Far from being a daredevil, Kurtz prided himself on being almost obsessive about preparation and safety. That attention to detail served him especially well at the outbreak of the war. Stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines, Kurtz, who had taken the trouble to dig himself a foxhole, was one of the handful of American pilots who survived the devastating Japanese attack on the base two days following Pearl Harbor. After helping rescue scores of men from Java, he made his way to Australia, where he rebuilt his B-17 bomber out of parts salvaged from planes destroyed in the Philippines. The jury-rigged aircraft, dubbed the Swoose (as in part swan, part goose), provided a handy symbol of American determination in the war, not to mention an exotic name for Kurtz's future daughter. During his service in Australia, Kurtz brushed up against several future notables, among them a young junketing congressman from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who reportedly became panic-stricken during an emergency landing in the Outback aboard the Swoose, and a 10-year-old named Rupert Murdoch, on whom Kurtz bestowed his pilot's wings during a chance meeting.
In 1944, Kurtz volunteered for service in Italy, where the young colonel flew 60 bombing missions and impressed men in his squadron with both his flying skills and his perfect sangfroid. (He liked to sit in the cockpit of his B-17 devouring biographies and works of history while en route to targets.) One who particularly admired the dashing officer was a 20year-old radio operator and gunner named Norman Lear, who would later find his own fame in Hollywood. "He was a charismatic leader," says Lear. "He had an enormous reputation, and we knew we were led by the best."
Within months his superiors transferred the highly decorated Kurtz stateside. He was put in charge of Kirtland Air Base in Albuquerque, and the planes under his command were used for air support on the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. After the war, Kurtz returned to L.A. and worked for two companies, including General Electric. But he was a .restless, driven man who had trouble adjusting to a relatively mundane existence. "The little things in life were hard for him," says Swoosie, 52. "Going to the grocery store was hard for him." He did, however, find enormous joy in his family, especially his only child, who was born in 1944. "That's rare of heroes," says Lear, who became friends with Kurtz in Hollywood. "They usually succeed as heroes at the expense of their families."
Swoosie with Dad, 1994
Yet for all his accomplishments, and the pride he took in his daughter's success as an actress, Kurtz never entirely lost the dark streak that had marked him since childhood. "I wouldn't say he was a happy man, no," says Swoosie. "I think because of the way he grew up, he felt like the world was his enemy in some ways. He was always fighting his own war."
A year ago, while taking his customary 5:30 a.m. walk in his Toluca Lake neighborhood in L.A., Kurtz slipped and hit his head on the pavement. Despite operations and physical therapy, he never fully recovered. On Halloween, while sitting in his favorite chair in his living room, he finally found peace. "He just turned his head," says Margo. "It looked like he decided to take a nap, and he was gone. It was like he wanted to make this trip."
On behalf of Olympic athletes, Kurtz thanked President Reagan in 1982
Col. Frank Kurtz, Olympic medalist diver and the most decorated Army Air Corps pilot in World War 11 known for flying the last surviving B-17 Flying Fortress, has died Nov 7, 1996. He was 85.
Col Frank Kurtz 1985
The legendary hero died Thursday at his Toluca Lake home from complications after a fall, said his wife, author Margo Kurtz.
An Army pilot on duty in the Philippines when the Japanese drew the United States into the war, Kurtz flew the last of the 35 planes stationed in the Pacific. When the plane was chewed up in combat, Kurtz and his crew dubbed it "part swan and part goose -- the Swoose." It has been called the most famous plane in the Pacific except for the Enola Gay, which carried the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
After flying the big plane home, Kurtz went to the European theater where he headed "the Swoose Group" and personally flew more than 60 missions over Italy and Germany. In 1949, he was given the honor of flying the Swoose to the Smithsonian.
When Kurtz's only child was born in Los Angeles during the war, news media immediately nicknamed her the second Swoose and the name stuck. She grew up to be the actress Swoosie Kurtz.
Kurtz's wartime exploits earned him, an international reputation and the Croix de Guerre, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three silver stars, three air medals and five presidential citations. His remarkable story was detailed in a book by W.L. White titled "Queens Die Proudly."
His wife told their personal story in a best-selling book titled "My Rival, The Sky."
One of Kurtz's most celebrated postwar flights was crash-landing a Swoose in the Australian bush with no injury to his passengers then Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and a congressional committee.
Kurtz came from Missouri, and at the age of 14, hitchhiked to Los Angeles seeking top diving coaches. He developed as an athlete at Hollywood High School and USC. When Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1932, Kurtz competed in high platform diving. He won a bronze medal.
Kurtz also competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and qualified for the games in 1940, which were canceled because of the war. Years later he served on the Olympic Committee and helped bring the 1984 games back to Los Angeles.
Anticipating a career in commercial aviation, Kurtz joined the Army to train as a pilot. Before the war, he held the national junior transcontinental speed record and established half a dozen other speed marks for light planes.
When he retired from the military, Kurtz became a top executive at the William May Garland development firm.
Survivors include his wife and daughter, who have requested that, any memorial donations be made to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.