Flying was Frank Albert Messer’s passion and, as a military pilot, family members said he approached wartime and Cold War missions with an optimism that saw him through even the most perilous situations.
Messer, a retired Air Force colonel, died Sept. 4 of a heart attack at his home in Sacramento’s Campus Commons area. He was 95.
“Basically, he just loved the Air Force,” said his son-in-law Jeffrey Lung.
Messer was born Feb. 9, 1920, to Frank Henry and Florence Barth Messer, who raised wheat near Mandan, N.D. He grew up riding horses and working on the farm, but his mother insisted that he get a college education, Lung said. Messer attended North Dakota State College in Fargo for two years, but in 1940 he got a job with the U.S. Engineering Department in Omaha, Neb., working as a member of a survey team looking for sites for Air Force bases.
Never miss a local story.
“He said that when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he didn’t know where that was,” Lung said. But he knew he wanted to join the Army Air Corps.
Messer initially wanted to become a fighter pilot. “He was aware that fighter pilots were real popular with the ladies, with their jackets and stuff,” Lung said.
The greatest need at the time was for bomber pilots. Messer went to B-24 combat training school and served with the 491st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force as a combat lead crew bomber pilot in the European theater.
“The mortality rate for those guys was horrendous,” Lung said, noting that on some missions, the aircraft casualty rate exceeded 80 percent.
Messer had some close calls, but he never lost an aircraft in the 20 missions he flew.
On one mission, his plane was struck by a round from an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun that went through the bottom of the aircraft and out the top. “It was set to explode at a certain height, and he said he just lucked out,” Lung said.
On his return to the United States, Messer was assigned to the Military Air Transport Command and spent three years as a liaison officer with the Canadian Forces. During the winter of 1948-49, he flew aircraft loaded with coal to Berliners as part of the Berlin Airlift.
In 1956, Messer was assigned as B-47 aircraft commander with the Strategic Air Command.
“The B-47 used to be called the ‘widow maker,’ ” Lung said. It was an extremely difficult aircraft to fly, resulting in numerous crashes, but Messer came through the assignment without losing a plane.
“He said he always felt whatever was thrown at him, he could get through it,” Lung said, describing Messer as an optimist at heart.
After four years with the Strategic Air Command, he was assigned to Headquarters Pacific Air Force, Hawaii, in the War Planes Division, where he was involved in logistics planning for the United States’ early involvement in Southeast Asia. In 1969, he was reassigned to the Strategic Air Command as the Wings Logistics staff officer of the 320th Bomb Wing at Mather Air Force Base.
His final assignment was chief of the Defense Electronics Division at the Sacramento Air Material Command at McClellan Air Force Base. Messer retired from active duty in 1973.
He said he always felt whatever was thrown at him, he could get through it.
Jeffrey Lung, Messer’s son-in-law
Catherine Mills said she and her husband met Messer and his wife, Mary, when both men were stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and the two couples maintained a decades-long friendship.
She said Messer had a great sense of humor and always entered into the spirit of any activity.
“The squadron had a picnic, and he was climbing a tree with my 6-year-old daughter,” she recalled.
Dorene Lung said she was 5 years old when her mother, Mary Coello, met Messer through a mutual friend in San Francisco. They were married in 1950 and Messer adopted Dorene.
Dorene Lung recalled thanking Messer years later for welcoming her as a daughter. He replied, “Darlin’, that was part of the package.”
She attributes her own optimism and ability to make friends easily to her father’s example and her experiences growing up on military bases.
After retiring from the military, Messer worked for a while as a contract employee with the U.S. Postal Service and tried his hand at real estate. He didn’t need the money, his son-in-law said, but he liked to keep busy.
Messer and his wife traveled extensively, visiting Egypt, Africa and Central America, places they hadn’t been to during their travels with the military.
Family members said Messer was always young at heart, continuing to ski into his 70s and, after his wife’s death, making a three-week trip to Russia alone to rediscover his roots.
In addition to his daughter, Dorene Lung of Elk Grove, Messer is survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 9961 Elk Grove Florin Road, in Elk Grove. Interment and a military salute will follow at 11:30 a.m. at Saint Mary’s Cemetery, 6700 21st Ave., Sacramento.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Messer’s memory may be made to Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.