A 50 Year Promise

Slide: 1

On September 11th, 1938, 30-year old Lieutenant Harold Dietz was instantly killed when his plane crashed in an air field at the Easton Airport, in Easton, PA. Present at the crash was Dietz's friend Lieutenant Herbert Frye. Because of the esteem in which Frye held Dietz, he made a promise to Dietz's family which he kept for 50 years.

Tonight we will look at Lieutenant Dietz's life and death, and the tenacious will of Herbert Frye.

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Lieutenant Harold Dietz was born in Bangor, PA, on September 5th, 1908. He went to Bangor schools and was eager to learn to fly.

After graduation, he studied aeronautics at Emerson Institute in Washington, D.C.

He attempted to get into West Point but instead was accepted into the Air Corps' Primary Flying School at Randolph Field and, later, the Advanced Flying Corp School at Kelley Field.

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Randolph and Kelly Fields, where Dietz learned to fly, were both located in San Antonio, Texas. The Primary Air School, at Randolph Field, offered entry-level pilot training. The Advanced Air School, at Kelly Field, specialized in training pilots in pursuit, bombardment, and observation tactics.

When Dietz graduated from the Air Schools in 1932, he was 24 years old. He was later stationed at Langley Air Force base in Virginia as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. It was from Langley that he started his short-lived career as an air mail pilot.

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Air Mail in the United States in the 1920's was handled by private air contractors. In 1930, Walter Folger Brown, the Postmaster General, pictured here, was involved in a major scandal, along with the executives of the airlines.

The scandal forced President Roosevelt to cancel all private air mail contracts. On February 9th, 1934, the air mail service was given to the US Air Corps to fulfill. This move was disastrous.

In all, the US Air Corps flew the mail for only for 78 days. In that time period, 12 pilots had been killed and there were 66 accidents. On June 12, 1934, the government returned service to the commercial airlines.

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Lieutenant Dietz was one of the first pilots to fly the U.S. Mail planes when the Army Air Corps took over air mail service. He was also one of the pilots injured during a mail run.

On February 23rd, 1934, while flying the Newark to Miami mail run, Dietz crashed his mail plane. The following account of the crash is from the March 5th, 1934 edition of Time magazine.

"Lieut. Dietz plowed into a night fog over Maryland. He circled Salisbury, where he knew there was a private landing field. There was a field but its beacon had not been in use for some time. Townsfolk heard the ship droning in circles overhead. Too late they rushed out to the landing field to turn on the lights. Lieut. Dietz pushed on to Crisfield, where his ship hit a tree and a telephone pole trying to land. The motor was thrown free and so was Lieut. Dietz. His skull was fractured, but he managed to shout: "Don't bother anything in the plane! Take care of the mail!'"

He was operated on at Walter Reed hospital, then went to his parent's house in Flicksville, PA., to recover.

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In July of 1937, long healed from his injuries, Dietz was transferred to Olmstead Field in Middletown, Pa, near Harrisburg. In Middletown, he was Assistant Operations Operator and Pilot. He was selected to fly new Army planes from the factory on the Pacific coast back to Olmstead Field.

Occasionally he would fly over the Bangor area. Whenever he did so, he saluted the town from the air.

It was from Middletown that he started his last journey.

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On September 11th, 1938, Dietz flew a North American B.C.1 observation plane from Middletown, PA to Easton, PA.

He was on leave and visiting his family in the Bangor area. On this day an air circus was also being held at the Easton airport, which was organized by Dietz's friend, Herbert Frye.

Dietz arrived in Easton at approximately 11:00 am, where he was met by his parents, George and Estella Dietz. They drove to Flicksville to eat and talk. A few hours later, around 1:00 pm, Harold's parents, his brother Stanley, and his sister Evelyn, drove back to Easton to watch the air circus and to bid farewell to Dietz, who was heading back to Middletown.

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When they arrived in Easton, the air circus had just begun. Dietz's plane, pictured here, was parked and guarded on the air field. There was a crowd estimated between 3000 and 4000 people at the airport.

The air meet was sponsored by the Local Sportsman Pilots of Easton, and was under the supervision of Herbert Frye, of Bethlehem. At that time, Frye was chief of the aviation division of the Sons of Veterans.

There were always questions about whether Dietz may have been asked by Frye to participate in the air circus, thus leading to his death. In the early newspaper reports it was clearly stated that Dietz was involved. Weeks and months later, Frye, and others, denied that Dietz was somehow part of the activities.

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After watching the air meet for about an hour, it was time for Dietz to leave. After take-off, he circled the field several times. The people gathered there thought he was part of the circus and several people said he was saluting the crowd with his wing-tips, which was something he did whenever he flew over Bangor.

He flew for approximately 10 minutes, when suddenly his plane picked up speed, then instantly dropped its nose to the ground.

Slide: 10

The plane was only about 150 feet in the air when it plunged to the earth. The crash embedded the nose of the aircraft into the ground about 2 feet deep.

When the plane crashed, the gas tanks split open, spilling gas over the wreckage. Within seconds, the motor ignited the fuel and the plane was engulfed in flames.

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Both Harold's brother Stanley and Herbert Frye rushed to the crash site to try and save Dietz. Stanley kept reaching in through the flames to rescue Harold, but the fire was much too intense. Herbert Frye saved Stanley from killing himself right there by fighting him away from the inferno.

Chemical fire trucks were rushed to the field to extinguish the fire. Later, airport employees, using hooks on the ends of poles, pulled the frame apart to recover Dietz' body.

Stanley Dietz, his mother, and his sister, Evelyn, were all taken to Easton hospital to be treated. Stanley suffered burns while his mother and sister were treated for shock.

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While the official word on what caused the plane to crash is not known, Herbert Frye later said that the wreck was not caused by a stall, or as a result of any tricks that Dietz was performing. He said that a stall only occurs when the plane does not have enough speed. He estimated that Dietz was traveling between 170 and 200 MPH when he crashed.

Days after the accident, investigators began looking at the actual design of the plane itself, as there were a number of other similar crashes with this same plane. Nothing definitive was ever announced.

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On the following Wednesday, September 14th, services for Lieutenant Dietz were held.

A private service for the family was conducted at the parent's home in Flicksville. Following the private ceremony, a public service was held at Salem church on South Main Street in Bangor. Over 1000 people attended.

Rev. A. J. Schankel presided over the service and the Apollo Male Chorus sang three of Dietz' favorite songs.

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After the public service, the flag-draped coffin was transported from Salem church, west on Broadway to St. John's Cemetery, where a full military burial was to take place at the Dietz's family plot.

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An honor guard from Middletown air base formed at the cemetery. A squadron of planes flew over the crowd as a firing squad saluted Lieutenant Dietz and the last rites were performed.

"Taps" was sounded to conclude the funeral.

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Several weeks afterwards, Russell McPherson and Clayton Jago, both of Phillipsburg, NJ, composed a song recalling Dietz's flight, crash, and funeral, entitled, "A Bird that Flew Beyond". McPherson was also a pilot.

The dedication of the song took place at the Brown and Lynch Post of the American Legion, in Easton. Russell Weidlich and Stanley Dietz both attended.

Several weeks later, on November 5th, 1938, Stanley Dietz died from complications due to the injuries sustained in the plane wreck.

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Now we come to Herbert Frye. Frye was born on November 17th, 1908 in Bethlehem to Ralph and Ellen Frye.

He graduated from the Bethlehem Business College and worked at the Bush and Bull department store in Bethlehem, and at the Easton airport.

Frye was first lieutenant in the Sons of Veterans Reserves Air Corps. In 1934, he attempted to establish an air freight delivery route in Eastern PA, but it did not succeed.

In 1936, Frye held the first in a series of statewide air races organized by the Sons of Veterans. A series of meets would be held in various places around the state, with a final race to be held in Harrisburg. The races helped to raise money to establish a military aviation school.

He later founded the Herbert R. Frye General Insurance Agency in Bethlehem, where he worked until his retirement.

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Immediately after Dietz's crash, George Dietz asked Frye to help with handling both the press and the funeral arrangements. He was often consulted about the accident and his account of the wreck was widely quoted in the newspapers.

It was shortly after Dietz' funeral that Herbert Frye made the promise to Mr. And Mrs. Dietz that he would place a wreath on Harold's grave every Memorial Day as long as he was able.

Here you can see that Harold Dietz's tombstone had his birthday wrong. It was originally carved as 1906 but was later corrected to 1908.

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Frye had been dropping wreaths to remember veterans on Memorial Day long before he ever met Harold Dietz. He began in 1930, during Memorial Day services in Bethlehem. Soon, other Legion posts heard of his ritual and asked him to perform the ceremony throughout the Lehigh Valley.

It was very natural for him to promise the same to Dietz's family. Soon Dietz's ceremony eclipsed all of his other wreath-dropping activities.

The first attempt to drop a wreath on a grave ended badly. When Frye tossed the wreath from the plane, it was sucked into the prop-wash. By the time it landed on the ground, only the frame was intact. After this initial attempt, he had the frames specially created to withstand the drop.

Every wreath that Frye dropped for Dietz had the same inscription on it. It read, "To my departed buddy, Lt. Harold S. Dietz from Col. Herbert R. Fry."

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Frye began dropping the wreath immediately following Dietz's death. However, during the years, 1942 to 1947, Herbert Frye was overseas in the China, Burma, and India theaters during WWII. His main service was as base operations officer in Burma.

During these years, he didn't participate in the Memorial Day services here in Bangor which were still being held at St. John's Cemetery.

In 1948, Frye immediately resumed the ceremony, thus keeping the promise alive.

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Every year the event grew in importance. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, attended the parade, the ceremonies at St. John's, and Frye's annual fly-over.

Each Memorial day, around 11:15 am, Frye would fly over the parade route to the cemetery. He would enter from the North, dropping the wreath in the approximate area of Dietz's grave from as low as 150 feet above ground. A later procession would bring the wreath to Dietz's actual marker.

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This continued for 14 years. Around 1961, Frye was forced to stop dropping the wreath from an airplane due to federal regulations prohibiting the act. He switched to flying into St. John's in a helicopter and walking to the grave in a procession.

A number of times, he had trouble acquiring a helicopter until the last minute.

In 1981, the National Guard decided not to supply him with a pilot or a helicopter. That year WSAN Radio and First National Bank of Allentown donated the money to hire a helicopter to bring Frye to Bangor.

From that year forward, both the pilot and helicopter were furnished by the 79th Air Reserve Command, based at the Willow Grove Air Base, Willow Grove, PA.

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When Frye began the ritual of dropping the wreath, the Dietz family attended but they were always in the background.

Around 1968, this changed. Harold Dietz's nephew, Melvin Slutter, started helping Frye. Here he is pictured setting the wreath on the grave. This continued until the end and involved the Dietz family more intimately.

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While each year was special, several years stand out as exceptional. 1964 was one of them. This was the 25th anniversary of Frye's promise to the Dietz family.

To celebrate, a group was formed in Bangor called the "Tribute to a Buddy Committee".

They organized services which were held at St. John's cemetery and at Bangor Memorial park. That night a testimonial dinner was served, with Congressman Fred B. Rooney delivering the address.

The program was called "A Tribute to Buddies" and a proclamation was made naming the day, "Buddy Day".

Frye was given many awards and accomodations that night.

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On the 49th anniversary of Dietz' death, on March 28th, 1987, the Borough of Bangor presented Herbert Frye with a plaque and a celebration.

The plaque was inscribed with these words: "In sincere appreciation and recognition of outstanding achievement and devotion to duty by paying homage to a fallen friend for one half century. Such dedication to principle deserves our emulation and praise."

This was a foreshadowing of the grand event that was to occur the following year.

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May 31st, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of Frye's promise. Festivities were planned throughout the day to honor Frye's loyalty.

The day started fine. Frye was taken by helicopter to Bangor Park to wait until the proper point in the services. However, when the time came for him to fly to the cemetery, the helicopter would not start. Undaunted he was taken by police car to the cemetery to complete his final laying of the wreath.

Bangor showered Frye with praise during the services. He was held as an example of loyalty and duty to all.

Frye was quick to thank everyone who helped him. Throughout the years, there were many problems and last minute plans to secure an aircraft of some kind. Several times Frye had to drive to Bangor because inclement weather prevented him from flying.

A tremendous achievement had been accomplished but it was not to continue.

Frye announced that this year would be his last. He was now 79 years old, his health was poor, and he felt he had reached a reasonable stopping point.

Unknown to all, he couldn't have continued.

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On September 23rd, 1988, just 13 days after the 50th anniversary of Dietz' death, Herbert Frye died in St. Luke's hospital after a short illness. He was mourned by many people in Bethlehem and in his adopted home in the Slate Belt.

Plans to honor Frye the following year immediately began to be made. On Memorial Day, 1989, a service in recognition of Herbert Frye's devotion to his friend was held.

A granite marker, pictured here, was presented to the Borough of Bangor by the Dyle E. Bray Post #739, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Emlyn H. Evans Post #378, the American Legion, and the Sons of Union Veterans, Camp #273.

Memorial Day services continued to be held annually but they were never the same afterwards. As Frye said about this act, "It's the thing that made Memorial day in Bangor."

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In 1988, Reverend Kenneth Klingborg, and the citizens of Bangor, presented a pictorial history of Lieutenant Dietz and Herbert Frye to the Borough, which was to be held in the Bangor library.

Without this book, I could not have written this talk. It was due to Reverend Klingborg's efforts that the history of this remarkable friendship and act of devotion would be always be remembered.

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Time Magazine article on Dietz's 1st crash - http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,747130-1,00.html

The Air Mail Scandal - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Mail_Scandal

Randolph Field postcard - http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/tx/bexar/postcards/adrand.jpg

Kenneth Klingborg's "A Pictorial History of Lieutenant Harold Dietz"