One of the bravest

28 Dec

Story of Selfless Courage

The Flight to Philadelphia
On a Sunday afternoon in January, 1951, a National Air Lines DC-4 with 25 passengers aboard landed on an icy runway in Philadelphia. In the thick of the Korean War, several of the passengers were soldiers and sailors. Flight 83 was just a short one from Newark to Norfolk, with this brief stop in Philadelphia in between.
On Saturday, January 13, Frankie called Peggy Egerton from the Jacksonville airport and said, ‘… Darndest luck, I’ve got to work, so no double date tonight. Some girls were sick, and there was a foul-up.’
She flew to Newark, New Jersey that day, planning to fly the Norfolk, Virginia shuttle and return to Jacksonville on Monday. But that was not to be. Instead, on Sunday, January 14, she was on National’s Flight 83, a DC4, from Newark to Norfolk with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. Rain and snow swirled around the slushy runway as they approached the Philadelphia airport. Although it was mid-afternoon the pilot was ordered to make an instrument landing.
The 25 passengers and three-person crew landed on the 6000-foot runway but overran it and plunged through a fence with most of the fuselage thrust across a 10-foot ditch. The left wing was severed and high-octane gasoline tanks ruptured and the fuel ignited.
Frankie Housley wrestled open the cabin door and looked down at the ground eight feet below. Women and children were screaming behind her. Down there was safety and Frankie could have been the first to jump. Instead she went back to her passengers, as she had been trained to do in the five months she had been a stewardess. Working swiftly she released the seatbelts that balked at the efforts of frantic passengers.
In all Frankie made 11 trips from the door into the cabin, guiding frightened passengers to the door and urging them to jump. Some were reluctant and she shoved them. Maybe they would be slightly injured, but they would survive.
An 18-year-old sailor told newsmen a few hours later, ‘The stewardess was the calmest person on the plane.” “She was calm and tried to quiet those passengers who were yelling,’ said a young soldier. The pilot and the co-pilot were out, unscathed and unburned, as were most of the passengers. But Mary Frances did not return from her 11th trip back into the hot and smoking plane. After the fire subsided and the wreckage had cooled, they found her body with a 4-month old baby cradled in her arms.
As the cabin filled with smoke, passengers screamed. Some were on fire themselves. Frankie Housley was the lone stewardess. She would soon find out what doing her duty would mean. She was a striking young woman with dark-brown hair and darker eyes, so dark that some described them as black. The 24-year-old had been a stewardess for only five months, but she demonstrated what the training had done to her. The other two members of the crew took their leaps to safety, but not Frankie. She took charge of the situation. ‘Take it easy,’ she commanded in her strongest voice.

A Stewardess at twenty-four
Though she’d recently lived in Jacksonville, near her brother, she’d grown up in Knoxville, in North Hills and Fountain City, the daughter of a cigar-company owner. A Central High graduate, she had attended the University of Tennessee for a year before joining a women’s literary society. But then, perhaps too early, she got married. As some of her old friends were graduating from college, she was getting a divorce. She kept her maiden name, unusual for a divorcee in mid-20th century America, and worked for a time as a stenographer for a Jacksonville dentist before applying with the airline. She was hired on the first interview.

As the chief official attendant on that flight she had to rush to open the emergency door. She turned pale when she looked down at an eight-foot drop to the ground. But she performed heroically as one after another, she escorted passengers to the door and then encouraged them to the drop. To those who resisted the jump, which was like leaping off a garage roof, she offered a firm shove.

She got 10 passengers out that way. Among them were soldiers, sailors, and young mother Manuela Smith and her two-year-old daughter. But Smith’s infant, Brenda Joyce, was still in the plane. Frankie felt she had to rescue that child. She went back in, one more time, but this time she didn’t emerge.
When the fire was out, they found Frankie in the scorched fuselage with the baby in her arms. A soldier she saved called her ‘a real heroine.’ One congressman swore she was one of the bravest Americans in history.

She helped everyone but herself
Her body arrived back in her home town by train. The public wasn’t invited to her funeral, but more than 200, described as ‘close friends,’ appeared for the service. She was buried on a hill at Lynnhurst in Fountain City. The story made national headlines that week, and an item in Time magazine. The Philadelphia Bulletin editorial said that she should be honoured with a permanent, conspicuous memorial, and collected money for such a project, suggesting that, for maximum exposure, the best place for such a memorial should be in her hometown, at the university where she’d been a student.

The University of Tennessee’s President C.E. Brehm immediately agreed. Although she wasn’t a graduate, UT offered to install a prominent memorial to the former student, and Brehm decided Ayres Hall would be the best place. Word got back to the Philadelphia Bulletin, which reported, that UT ‘would accept any contributions that could be forwarded through this newspaper and would undertake the erection of a memorial in Ayres Hall, where Miss Housley pursued her studies.’

Her story captured the national imagination. NAL installed a plaque in her honour in a Miami hospital. Show-biz legend Eddie Cantor, the Apostle of Pep, performed a benefit comedy show in Jacksonville to raise money for a new wing of the Hope Haven Hospital for Crippled Children there to be named in Frankie’s honour. ‘It seemed appropriate,’ he said, ‘because she died trying to save a child.’

Some of it bothered her mother, only because the national media kept referring to Frankie as a Jacksonville resident. ‘This is her home, not Jacksonville,’ she said. The local chapter of the Shriners, who funded Knoxville’s own Crippled Children’s Hospital on Laurel Avenue, dedicated a room in the hospital to Frankie Housley.

Mr. Housley, her father, represented as ‘a salesman’ in newspaper accounts, mourned quietly. John Housley was, by some accounts not a trader who worked on the front rows of society. He’d come up the hard way in the ‘20s, when a lot of Knoxville business had different ways of operating. Besides selling cigars, according to family members, he was also involved in trading that didn’t always appeal to most ordinary people. He’d run the Housley-Mayer Cigar Co. out of the back of a building on Gay near the train station, and later set up in a bigger storefront on North Central near Broadway.

The bravest woman in America
Some years later, writer MacKinlay Kantor, author of the Pulitzer-winning historical novel, Andersonville, took an interest in her story. He called her ‘the Bravest Woman In America’—and came to Knoxville to have a look around the city where she grew up, hoping to find clues to her heroism. He visited each of her childhood homes, and her grave, and observed that each was on a hill. Readers Digest, then the most popular magazine in the nation, published A Girl Named Frankie (by M.Kantor in May 1966). Some readers travelled to Knoxville just to see her grave.

There are processes and advocacy groups for memorializing soldiers, even those who never showed conspicuous courage, but not for flight attendants. Some Knoxvillians today, like Jack Kramer, who were impressed by her story, think she deserves a statue, or a street named in her honour. Kramer grew up in Florida, and eventually joined the Navy. After seven years of service, much of it in the vicinity of the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, he returned to an America he didn’t recognize: divorce, crime, and drugs, he says, had eroded life as he knew it. Looking for something more meaningful, he moved to Spain, where he found values that resembled those of the America of his youth. He settled there, and taught there for some time.

An amateur bibliophile, he often found himself browsing used-book sales. At a flea market he found a children’s book in Spanish, called ¿Que Quieres Ser?—What do you want to be? It told inspiring stories from around the world about people in different professions: Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, and Frankie Housley. ‘I was moved by her story,’ he says.

After four years in Spain, he realized, “You just can’t step back out of life. You’ve got to get involved.” He moved back to the States, got his masters in Spanish, and began working with the Catholic Church. Through a couple of twists of fate, Kramer found himself editing the Hispanic edition of the Catholic Church’s newsletter for the diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee. He now suffers from Parkinson’s, and has some difficulty speaking, but still works as a consultant for the church’s Hispanic ministries.

Central High honours Frankie Housley (1926-1951) in its Alumni Hall of Fame—they display the portrait of her used by Reader’s Digest—but Kramer thinks there should be something more out where anybody might encounter the story. He’d heard the Knoxville Fire Department might be interested in helping, and mailed them his copy of the book. Unfortunately, the person he mailed it to lost his job soon after that, and Kramer never saw the book again.

The room named for America’s heroine at Crippled Children’s Hospital did not survive that hospital itself, which closed only about a decade after the dedication of the Housley room. If you walked around Ayres Hall looking for a plaque, you’ll soon discover that UT never got around to installing it. No one seems to know what became of the money pledged in Philadelphia.

National Air Lines stopped flying many years ago. It was acquired by PanAm, which subsequently collapsed. The Philadelphia Bulletin closed. Even the hospital in Jacksonville that Eddie Cantor raised money for has since been torn down. Had Housley survived, she might still be alive today. She’d be about 81 and might have given us some insights into what went through her mind. If she had just jumped out, and left the passengers to their fates, she might well still be among us. She might still have been around helping many more people in different situations, and might have become known more widely than as a heroine of Flight 83. She had no time to think. Life just threw the options at her. Her heart spoke: ‘Go for it Frankie.’ She did: that’s her story. No memorials have come up but she will certainly be remembered as one of the bravest women in America.
However, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission presented her parents, Mr. and Mrs. John H. Housley, Sr., a bronze medal recognizing Mary Frances’ heroic acts. Who can say what moulds a heroine? Perhaps the answer is on that marble plaque on the wall in Central High School, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’
[from the account by J.Neely in Metro Pulse-01.01.2008: Edited by T.D’Souza for Trodza– 28.12..2014]


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