It was more than 70 years ago, but Jerry Hoenig clearly remembers the days he spent as a teenager with his best friend Frank Freeland. The two Brooklyn boys would go into Manhattan together to see the old boats at South Ferry and visit the aquarium.
“We used to pal around,” Hoenig recalled, sitting in his dining room on Long Island.
These memories are bittersweet for Hoenig, because only nine years after they graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, Lt. Freeland was killed during one of World War II’s fierce naval battles in the Pacific.
Unfortunately, Freeland’s fate is not unique, but alongside all the other stories that have come out of World War II, it stands up as one more example of how the Greatest Generation earned their name.
Before the war, Hoenig and Freeland enjoyed their high school years much like today’s students. The athletic Freeland was on the track team and Hoenig always cheered him on. When they weren’t busy with sports they were busy with girls. Hoenig’s grandfather had opened a synagogue, and although he didn’t usually attend services, Hoenig started to go occasionally. It paid off, because that’s where he met Lillian, his future wife. On one of their first dates they went to a party at the Waldorf, and Lillian brought her friend Francis along. Freeland “was sweet on her,” Hoenig recalled, and the couple stayed in touch even when Freeland went to the University of Arizona.
“He was inquisitive. He was a smart kid,” Hoenig said of his friend’s academic career. Hoenig went to work after high school and eventually owned a successful jewelry business.
As hints of war began to emerge in the late thirties Freeland decided he wanted to fly for real, not just on the track, and he began pilot training school at Randolph Field. He flunked out at the very last stage, but undaunted he applied to the Navy. Not only did he get in, but he became what was known as a “90-day wonder” and graduated as an ensign in just three months. When war broke out Freeland was assigned to the torpedo boat squadron. He came to say goodbye to Hoenig, but he couldn’t tell even his closest friend where he was going.
As the war raged on, life continued back home, and in the winter of 1942 Hoenig attended the bris of a high school friend’s son. At one point during the festivities, the friend pulled Hoenig aside and told him that he saw Freeland on the MIA list.
“I always checked the MIA list,” Hoenig said, but that week he hadn’t had a chance to look at it. Although Freeland’s official status remains MIA, he never returned from the war and was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.
In his last moments, Freeland exhibited leadership and bravery in the face of certain destruction. The night of December 11, 1942, almost exactly one year after Pearl Harbor, Freeland’s PT 44 and another boat in the squadron were assigned to hunt submarines in Guadalcanal, according to Hugh Cave’s Long Were the Nights. When the other boat got stuck in a reef, Freeland’s ship stayed to help until he was called to assist in the attack on approaching Japanese forces.
On the way back to continue helping the other ship, the PT 44 was caught in enemy fire and suffered a shell hit to the engine room. Everyone knew it was only a matter of minutes until the ship blew up, but Freeland, the ship’s skipper, quickly collected himself and tried to reach the engine room. Although he couldn’t make it through the flames, he called out orders and “the men rallied to the sound of his voice,” according to the book. These details were supplied by Charlie Melhorn, one of only two survivors of the blast that destroyed the ship just moments after Freeland’s courageous move.
Just like that night in Guadalcanal decades ago, there is hardly anyone around now to tell Freeland’s story. His parents passed away years ago. The other friend from high school who told Hoenig the bad news recently died. Even immediately after Freeland’s death, there was no memorial service in lieu of a funeral.
“No one thought of anything like that,” Hoenig said, explaining that people were busy with the war. Freeland’s parents mourned privately. After the war a PT boat was named in his memory, but Hoenig wants to make sure that there is some record of the man behind that name.
“I would just like to leave a little history of Frank,” he said.