Colonel Vincent Fonke - Distinguished Flying Cross and former POW - Crosses Over to Other Side at 90
Colonel Vincent Fonke of Fayetteville, North Carolina, died Wednesday evening at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. He was 90 years old.
Col. Fonke received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2007 for a mission in 1944 that resulted in Fonke's imprisonment in Poland. He was flying a B-17 bomber with the 91st Bomb Group's 324th Squadron over Germany on the morning of August 16, 1944, when his fighter escort had to return to base because they were running low on fuel. The escorts that were to pick them up were still five minutes away - that five-minute window was all the enemy needed; his flight was attacked over Eisenach. Six planes were shot down.
Gunfire barraged the B-17. Flames engulfed its right wing, and an engine was knocked out. The plane was losing altitude fast, Instead of immediately bailing out, he held the plane level as the crew jumped, despite the risk of an explosion. Fonke was the last to jump. Seconds later, the plane exploded.
"It must have made my hair stand up straight," Fonke later recalled. "The only thing I could think of was getting them out of that airplane immediately."
The Germans took Fonke prisoner, beat him, interrogated him and put him in solitary confinement. He was held in several prisoner of war camps, including Luft Stalag III, of "Great Escape" fame, according to his eldest son, David Fonke.
In the late 1980s, Fonke became a consultant for the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
His son recalls: "I knew the story. I knew my dad had bailed out of an airplane. I didn't realize how unique, how significant, how exemplary his service was until he became involved in SERE and I began to see the honor he received from servicemen."
At one point in his captivity, while being transferred at night to another camp in a packed box car, Col. Fonke reached into his pocket and pulled out a mouth harp he'd picked up in the camp, his son said. Col. Fonke began playing "Shenandoah," then passed the instrument along to his fellow prisoners.
"He was able to provide, in a simple gesture like that, comfort to his fellow prisoners when it was about as dismal a situation as you can imagine," Mr. Fonke said. "That music defines my dad. He'd play the guitar . . . even through last Thursday, Friday. Every afternoon, he took a chair, picks up his guitar and serenades my mom."
Col. Fonke was a Prisoner of War until April 1945, when the U.S. 3rd Army liberated him. He went on to a long career in the Air Force, serving in the Korea and Vietnam, retiring after 30 years of service.
Col. Fonke is survived by his wife, seven children, seventeen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A son, Air Force Capt. Donald Fonke, preceded him in death; he was the navigator aboard a Boeing EC-135 that crashed during a training mission May 6, 1981.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement during aerial flight in combat. His other decorations included the Air Medal, two Bronze Stars and several campaign and service ribbons. Vincent Fonke dismissed any suggestion that he was a hero, calling his actions part of the job.
“I’m just very happy that I had the ability to respond to whatever their call was,” he said. “The brain says you got a big responsibility – get the people out of this airplane.”
Month of Honor continues . . . . . . . . . . . . . STORMBRINGER SENDS