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Honoring a “Rat Racer’s” legacy

Frank McCauley smiles and holds a portrait of him in his younger years. The ace pilot passed away at 100 years old. (Courtesy photo by Perry Backus)

Frank McCauley poses for a photo in his P-47 Rat Racer. He flew his Rat Racer on 46 combat missions over Europe during WWll. (Courtesy photo)

Frank McCauley poses for a portrait in his flight gear. McCauley helped save the lives of dozens of bomber crewman after he shot down three enemy aircraft that were attempting to attack a set of B-17 bombers. (Courtesy photo)

An F-15E Strike Eagle four-ship formation flies over the crowd during the Wings Over Wayne Air Show, May 20, 2017, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. Later this year, the 4th Fighter Wing will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a week of heritage events and ceremonies. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda A. Loera)

Frank McCauley, former ace fighter pilot, smiles at a dog. He did his pilot training in Texas with the Air Corps. (Courtesy photo)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Paying tribute to a service member who has passed can stretch from a moment of silence to flying a flag at half-staff.

But, how do you pay tribute to an Ace pilot from World War ll?

Frank E. McCauley joined the Army after completing his degree at Michigan State University in 1939, but shortly after he transitioned to the Air Corps.

Once in the Air Corps, he began training to be a fighter pilot in Texas before getting to his first duty station in England.

During his career he flew his P-47 Fighter “Rat Racer” on 46 combat missions over Europe during WWII. He successfully shot down 5 1/2 enemy aircraft, and achieved “Ace” fighter pilot status.

According to a story from a Montana newspaper, the Missoulian, on Oct. 14, 1943, McCauley helped save the lives of dozens of bomber crewmen after he shot down at least three enemy aircraft that were attempting to attack a set of B-17 bombers.

“I made a decision, okay I’m low on gas,” McCauley had once recalled. “I’m going down.”

McCauley thrust his plane into action, taking fire several times and escaping only after blasting through a fireball created by an enemy plane’s wreckage.

The bombers each carried a crew of around 10 men -- “It was heart-wrenching to see them go down,” McCauley said. Even though the bomber went down, all were safe that day.

Frank returned home in 1945, he earned the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals.

In 2015 Frank and his wife were flown to Washington D.C., where Frank was presented the Congressional Gold Medal.

McCauley lived a full life. After a career as a pilot, he pursued a career in construction. He retired in 1974, and settled in Montana.

Even in retirement he was still very active. McCauley and his wife Bobbie went on adventures traveling in their motor home.

He is survived by his wife, four children, three grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren.

His son Kirk recalls a memory with his dad that occurred about three weeks prior to his passing.

“He was laying in his bed,” Kirk said. “He looked at me and said ‘Kirk do you think I could get a flyover?’”

Kirk wasn’t sure if he could make that happen. He assumed flyovers were for people with a lot of prestige and status, such as generals or the President.

He started to ask around and see if it was a possibility, nevertheless.

Kirk and his family looked at all the possibilities, they had a backup option, but they really wanted the Air Force to support.

“Sure enough, a day and a half prior to the service we got word that Mountain Home Air Force Base was going to come through for us. I tell you what, my mom and I just kind of grabbed each other,” said Kirk. “It was just the most amazing thing to know that one of my dad’s final wishes was going to come true.”

June 16, 2017, the seemingly impossible happened.

“The timing was perfect,” Kirk said. “Right at the perfect moment, the skies opened up, four F-15’s came over and the missing man formation took place. I tell you what there was not a dry eye in the house.”

Flying one of those F-15E’s was Major Curtis Culver, a fighter pilot formerly stationed with the 389th Fighter Squadron. He described the moment.

“I was flying low between the mountains, under overcast skies in the Missoula Valley. The screaming engine of four F-15E Strike Eagles pierced the final note of a lone trumpet, and rendered this American Icon his final salute,” Culver said. “Honoring such a legacy, with the men and women of the 389th Fighter Squadron Thunderbolts was the highlight of my flying career, and a moment I will never forget.”

McCauley’s family was extremely grateful that the flyover was able to happen after all.

“I have the most respect for everything you (service members) do,” Kirk said. “I just want to thank you for everything in service to our country, and for my dad’s flyover.”