‘It was like finding gold for a girl who barely knew her dad’: A Father’s Day story

When I was a kid growing up in a Beverly red brick two-flat, I would often go to a living room cabinet and dig out the beat-up scrapbook that carried my dad’s pictures and memorabilia from D-Day and World War II.

We had images of him throughout the house, in his aviator shades coaching my brothers’ Christ the King football teams and with his slicked-back Vitalis hair as a Ford Motor Company executive. But that scrapbook gave me a look at a different time.

Frank R. Doubek died from an infection at age 46, four days after my third birthday, leaving behind his wife and eight children. As that eighth child, I knew him the least and yearned to know more.

Growing up without him was just the way it was. My mom and brothers and sisters told stories that became family lore. A favorite is Mom telling Dad at the dinner table the night I was born that it was time to head to Little Company of Mary Hospital. He got up, headed to the phone and returned. “Did you call the doctor?” Mom asked. “No,” he said, “I called my bowling captain to tell him I wasn’t going to make it tonight.”

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My own memories are few: watching him shave, him bouncing me on his knee in his living room chair, sneaking whiffs of his pipe tobacco pouch.

That old scrapbook cemented his hero status before I even understood what I was seeing. There were black and white snapshots of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower reviewing troops. Grainy shots of him horsing around on an MP’s motorbike. Dad in a baseball cap and flight suit, posing with crewmates in front of his glider, “Miss Windy City,” the outline of a buxom babe in a bathing suit etched beneath the cockpit window. A U.S. flag patch with “June 6, 1944,” hand-printed along an edge.

Lt. Frank R. Doubek was a 24-year-old glider pilot on D-Day. He was towed up with other troops and equipment and released to land the plywood, fabric and steel-tubed aircraft behind enemy lines. The gliders were dubbed “flying coffins,” and six of the 26 men in his 88th squad never returned home.

For the longest time, that scrapbook, with its grainy images and Army documents, was all I ever knew about Dad’s service.

The story of ‘Screaming Eagle Gliders’

All that changed about 20 years ago, when a retired Michigan cop, Gary J. Dettore, cold-called my mom looking for information for a book he was writing on the 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion. That call led to exchanges between Dettore and my brother, Don, who was the keeper of that sacred scrapbook. And all of that led to an unbelievable find.

“Screaming Eagle Gliders,” by G.J. Dettore, eventually was published in 2016, and the cover image is my dad and his mates in front of “Miss Windy City.”

That, in itself, is incredible, but long before the book was published, Dettore sent us a copy of an article he’d found. Dad was featured in the July 2, 1944, edition of “Yank,” the Army’s weekly newsmagazine. Not just any news story, this piece was like finding gold for a girl who barely knew her dad. It was a Q and A with my dad and two other glider pilots talking about their D-Day experiences.

For the first time, I heard my dad talking about this epic day. A bit of him came alive on those pages.

“Before take off, they told us it was going to be a milk run, but that turned out to be the biggest lie of the whole invasion,” Dad said early in the piece. He described being met by enemy mortar fire as he landed.

“The first contact we made with American forces on the ground was with tankmen. About an hour later, we ran across paratroopers. They were just as happy to see us as we were to see them. They threw their arms around us glider pilots and hugged us. It was wonderful seeing those boys. We glider pilots think that those paratroopers are the toughest bunch of boys in the Army.”

In another section, Dad talked about making it back to the beaches of Normandy. “When I got on the beach I was like a kid waiting for the ice cream man. When you realize the predicament those men on the beach head had been in and the men further in, when you understood how badly and how much they needed everything, it made you feel awfully good to watch our big stuff coming in off the landing craft — big guns, tanks, trucks, bulldozers, and it all looked good.”

To read his words, feel his jumble of emotions, well, it just takes my breath away.

Eighty years after D-Day, the “Yank” interview remains a treasure, with the voice of my dad reliving epic moments that reshaped the course of all of our lives and marked the beginning of the end of the terror of Nazi Germany.

Dettore gave us such a gift. He gave me a glimpse of my dad, my own hero of the Greatest Generation.

Madeleine Doubek is a former journalist and nonprofit executive.

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