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Time Period: WW 2

Maj Fredric Arnold, born Fredric Kohn, was an artist, inventor, and WWII flying ace. A Chicago native born to Russian-Jewish parents, Arnold was 19 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked and enlisted soon after. Somehow, Arnold had gotten the impression that fighter pilots would likely remain stateside. This appealed to his artistic nature as he hated violence and was a self-described “reluctant warrior.” Of course, Arnold turned out to be completely wrong about fighter pilots; between 1942 and 1943, he would fly P-38 Lightnings on dozens of missions in North Africa and Sicily with the 1st Fighter Group, 71st Fighter Squadron. By age 23, he was promoted to Major, and by his 46th mission became a squadron leader. He would end up flying 50 wartime missions, totaling seven enemy kills, giving him the coveted ace status. He would receive a DFC for heroic actions in the Mediterranean, and the Air Medal with nine Oak Leaf Clusters.

Given the high casualty rates among fighter pilots, Arnold did not believe he would make it home. As it was, he shockingly survived getting shot down twice behind enemy lines. The first time he managed to get back to Allied lines, but the second time, he was captured and interred at a German POW camp. Afraid of what would happen when the guards saw the Jewish star inscribed in his helmet, he managed to break out of the camp. Arnold went on four more missions after that before returning stateside.

Due to Arnold’s real-time battle field experiences, the Army tasked him with creating instruction manuals for the next generation of Airmen, using his sketches of battle scenes in updated fighter pilot trainings. He went on to write and illustrate manuals for the P-38, P-51, P-47 and XP-80. The Army also incorporated his design suggestions to improve the P-38, including the power steering for the aircraft.

When the war ended, Arnold retired from the Air Force. Arnold and his wife, Natalie, raised three children in the 1950s and 60s. Despite his success as a fighter ace, Arnold was haunted by his memories of World War II. He channeled his emotions into art, both painting and sculpting, which was not just a creative outlet, but an income stream which the talented Arnold had used to support his family since he was 11. He also invented things; his most well-known innovation was the foldable aluminum beach chair. Beyond that, he wrote a best-selling autobiographical novel about his wartime experience titled Doorknob Five Two, lectured to numerous groups, and even dabbled in acting.

As one of just two surviving members of his P-38 company Class of 42J Group, Arnold had pledged to honor the other 12 fallen Airmen. But it would be years before he would go on to fulfill this undertaking. In the late 1990s, Jim Hagenbach, the other P-38 survivor, passed away. Shortly before his death, he called Arnold to remind him of his commitment to honor their fellow P-38 wingmen. “Jim, I promise,” Arnold solemnly told his dying friend. But he had no idea how he would go about doing so.

For inspiration, Arnold visited museums and memorials that honored US service members. Then his daughter-in-law had an idea: Use his old wartime maps as a background to paint something. Arnold took out his old maps, modified them in various ways, and created 10 panels of art. While it showed what the men accomplished, Arnold did not feel that it adequately honored their memory. He wished to convey the true cost of the lives that were lost.

One day, he looked carefully at one scene he had painted on one of the panels—it was a depiction of his squadron’s last mission briefing. He knew then what he wanted to do. He had to bring those images to life… in a sculpture.

Arnold embarked on the project at age 90. Four years later, he finished creating his poignant sculpture entitled, “Lest We Forget: The Mission.” The sculpture series was initially displayed in Denver, Colorado and is now at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Excerpt from Arnold’s artist statement:

This project… is my magnum opus… The most challenging from an artistic point of view, but more importantly, the most meaningful to me. I put my heart and soul into this work. …The idea of the sculpture grew out of an intense memory of the quiet bravery of my comrades attending a mission briefing as we recommitted to executing the day’s mission, even while flanked by the memory of our fellow pilots killed in recent combat. Although the sculpture began as a testament to the twelve pilots in my squadron, the scope of the work has grown. Now the twelve individual figures are dedicated to the memory of the more than 88,000 U.S. aviators who gave their lives during WWII…

The sculpture depicts twelve fighter pilots during a mission briefing. The lighter colored spirits of aviators already killed in action look over the shoulders of those still alive. All are destined to die. Thank you for your interest and support, Major Fredric Arnold (Ret.), Artist/Sculptor

A few years later, Maj Fredric Arnold passed away on May 28, 2018 — Memorial Day. He was 96 years old. Three former joint chiefs of staff— Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Richard Myers, and Gen. Peter Pace—released the following statement after Arnold’s death: “Fredric Arnold is truly a national treasure, both as a Fighter Pilot of WWII who survived 50 combat missions and as a talented sculptor.”

Originally published in the Chanukah/Purim 2024 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.