WWII Comes to the Cast of South Pacific
Lieutenant Colonel Franklin B. Montgomery had the glint in his 94-year-old eyes of his much younger self. Frank was in fact channeling his 18-year-old self, describing how his life and the lives of all Americans changed after Pearl Harbor.
“It exploded my family,” said Frank. “High Point, my hometown. North Carolina. Our nation. The world.”
Frank was standing in front of a packed room, speaking to a rapt audience – the 30 cast members and assorted creative team and staff of our production of SOUTH PACIFIC. Frank was invited to speak to them because he’s a bit of an expert in this area. He served in the South Pacific during WWII.
But that’s telling the story in the wrong order. Frank graduated from High Point High School in 1944 and enrolled in NC State with the intention of studying engineering and continuing to run track. He’d been a track star in high school. He had a promising future. And then war reared its ugly head, and like so many young Americans Frank pivoted to meet it.
In early 1942 Frank dropped out of college and volunteered for the Army Air Corps.
“I choose the Air Corps because it seemed exciting,” Frank said. “Just 20 years before I was born the Wright Brothers flew the first plane off the coast of North Carolina.” He described himself as “not militaristic, most of us weren’t”, but rather driven by a sense of duty and the thrill of new experiences.
He got on a bus in High Point with seven other people, but they all went their separate ways. [Check out this News & Record article for more of Frank’s history and to hear how he met up with one of those same young men he left with, so many years later.]
Frank graduated flight school in 1944 and shipped out. Eighty percent of the personnel and equipment in WWII went to Europe, but Frank went to the South Pacific. Not his choice.
“I knew how to fly an airplane, but that’s about all I knew,” said Frank of his younger self. Prior to leaving for the war, the furthest he’d been from home was Myrtle Beach. He wound up on Oahu flying a P51. He’d sometimes be in the air for 7 hours a stretch with only the most rudimentary navigation instruments. The enemy was not the only threat.
“Watching that fuel gauge go own and down, you begin to wonder if you’ll make it back.”
He described the state of endless waiting that the characters of SOUTH PACIFIC are engaged in – waiting for orders, for battle, for news from home. Frank spent more than an hour sharing his candid memories and answering questions from the cast – large and small.
“How long would it take to get an answer when you wrote letters?” asked one cast member.
“Forever,” said Frank. “Weeks. Or never.”
Frank returned home in early 1946. He later went back to Southeast Asia to serve in Korea and Vietnam. He spent time living in Okinawa with his wife and sons. His experiences living and fighting in the South Pacific didn’t leave him bitter towards the people there.
“No Japanese person ever hit me or short changed me. I’d shoot down their planes and boats but I couldn’t sit there and say I hated them. But a friend of mine just hated them from his guts. Explain that.”
It’s hard to fathom Frank hating anyone. He’s just about the most congenial person you can imagine. But that difference of feeling is at the heart of South Pacific, and our production is better because Lieutenant Colonel Franklin B. Montgomery shared his experiences with our cast during the rehearsal process and helped bring the characters to life by filling out the world they inhabit.
*If you happened to notice Frank wearing three hats, you are not mistaken. Frank likes his hats.
We are proud to be honoring Lieutenant Colonel Franklin B. Montgomery as part of Triad Salutes at the Opening Night performance of South Pacific on Friday, September 22.
I am looking forward to seeing the Sunday matinee on Oct. 8th with my 92 year old father, George Wells, who fought in the Pacific during WWII. And my 25 year old son will be joining us making it 3 generations enjoying the theater together. Thanks!