A Lufkin veteran makes his television debut next weekend telling the stories of his past as a pilot in World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War.
Major Gerald French’s life story will air on “America’s War Heroes,” a locally-produced documentary show.
His life was not an easy one. Orphaned at age 13, he ran away from home a year later. A county judge in Kansas told the young man if he could “keep his nose clean and get an education,” a legal guardian would not be granted.
French washed dishes at a bakery and hand-milked cows for 15 cents an hour in the early 1940s. In the summer, he drove a combine in the wheat fields for $1 a day and room and board.
His senior year, a banker loaned him $90 to lease a Phillips 66 service station.
“I went to the bank and had no collateral, no parents, no guardian, and I was 16 years old,” French said. “The banker asked, ‘How will you pay me back?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll be in school nine months, so you know where I’ll be.’ I think he probably took it out of his own pocket.”
He sold gas for 12- to 14-cents a gallon, with a half-cent discount to truckers. French said he slept in that station and kept it open 24 hours a day.
Before his father’s death, French said the patriarch paid a barnstomer $5 to take French and his brother up in an airplane.
“He told the pilot, ‘Ring ’em out,’” French said. “So he went up and did stat rolls, slow rolls and spins. My brother and I were holding on, and it was fun. It’s nice being up there above the clouds.”
Thus began his love for flight.
French enlisted in the United States Air Force at age 16 in June 1941.
“We weren’t in the war, yet, but most of the whole world was in war,” French said. “We were going to get in it, so I figured I would get in on the ground floor and get started in the military before we got into the war.”