Frank Albert Kappeler, 0-419579, Lieutenant Colonel
Navigator Crew 11
Graduated high school in 1932 and Polytechnic College of Engineering, Oakland, California. Transferred to Aviation Cadet training in December, 1939 and was commissioned a second lieutenant, June, 1941 at McChord Field, Washington with rating as navigator. Later received training as bombardier. Remained in China-Burma-India Theater after Tokyo Raid until August, 1942. Served in European Theater of Operations from November, 1943 until June, 1945. Stateside assignments after the war included bases in Texas, Ohio, California before returning overseas to Japan where he served from May, 1951, until February, 1952. Deputy Commander, Minuteman Site Activation Task Force, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. Decorations include Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 2 Silver Oak Leaf Clusters, Bronze Star Medal, and Chinese Army, Navy, and Air Corps Medal, Class A, 1st Grade.
Born January 2, 1914, San Francisco, California
Died June, 23rd, 2010, Santa Rosa, California
At the ceremony held in 1992 in the United States to mark the 50th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid,
Lt. Frank A. Kappeler, a crew member of No.11 bomber, presented Zeng Jianpei with 50 bottles of beer.
Forty-eight hours after the crew of bomber #11 bailed out, they pose for a picture after being reunited in a small Chinese town before being moved to Chuhsien.
From left are, Sgt. William Birch, bombardier; Lt. Frank Kappeler, navigator; Capt. C. Ross Greening, pilot; Lt. Ken Reddy, co-pilot; and Sgt. Melvin Gardner, engineer/gunner.
Published: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 6:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 6:06 p.m.
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Frank Kappeler, the gentlemanly retired Air Force officer who downplayed his role as one of the Doolittle Raiders whose strike at the heart of Japan lifted America's hopes four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, died Wednesday at his longtime Santa Rosa home.
Kappeler, whose failing health prompted his wife of 53 years to request hospice care just this week, was 96.
“We thought he had weeks, maybe months, but it didn't turn out that way,” Betty Jo Kappeler said.
Frank Kappeler was one of 79 U.S. Army Air Corps aviators who volunteered to fly with Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle on an audacious retaliatory bombing mission against Japan on April 18, 1942.
Kappeler's death leaves just seven survivors of the raid, which ranks among the most courageous from the early days of the war. The 16 mid-sized B-25 bombers launched from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific — a first — and all 80 Raiders knew they would run out of fuel after dropping their bombs and would have to ditch somewhere in Asia.
Kappeler served as navigator aboard the mission's No. 11 B-25 and bailed out along with his fellow crewmen when its engines stopped 10,000 feet over China. With the help of Chinese people he escaped capture by Japanese soldiers.
Kappeler served the rest of the war in the European theater, completing 53 combat missions. He went on to serve his entire career with the Air Corps/U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1966 as a lieutenant colonel.
For more than 50 years, Kappeler and his wife traveled to many of the Raiders' reunions, held each April since 1945 at a host city somewhere in America.
The Kappelers weren't up to making the 2010 reunion two months ago in Dayton. Only four Raiders attended.
“They wanted him to come to Dayton. They arranged for a seven-passenger Lear jet to come for us,” Mrs. Kappeler said. But her husband felt the trip would be too much.
The centerpiece of each reunion is the collection of 80 goblets, each inscribed with the name of a Raider. The emotional highlight is a toast by the aging survivors and the turning over of a goblet for each Raider who died since the previous reunion.
If any of Kappeler’s raid buddies are able to make the the 2011 reunion in Omaha next April, they will toast him and turn over his goblet.
“He was very special guy,” said Tom Casey, whose position as managing director of the Doolittle Raiders includes setting up the reunions that bring no income to the vets but produce revenue for the hosting non-profits.
Casey said by phone from Sarasota that among the Raiders, Kappeler was regarded as an officer's officer.
“He was not physically big,” Casey said. “But gentle, very kind. And he had a very big heart.”
Frank Albert Kappeler was born in San Francisco in January 1914 and grew up in Alameda. He joined the Army near the start of 1941. In December of ‘41 he was in Oregon when he heard that Imperial Japan had sneak-attacked U.S. ships and installations on Oahu.
Early in 1942, Kappeler heard that volunteers were needed for a top-secret bombing mission to be led by Doolittle, a World War I veteran and aviation pioneer destined to earn the Medal of Honor and become one of history's most renowned pilots.
“They said there was only a 50-50 chance of surviving” the mission, Kappeler said in 2007. He volunteered to go anyway.
“I got in the service to fight in a war if we had to,” he said. “A 50-50 chance didn't sound so bad. All of us felt that way.”
The 80 Raiders trained intensively as the 16 Mitchell B-25s were stripped of weight for their take-offs from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The bombers were packed tightly on the deck when the Hornet pulled away from Alameda and slipped beneath the Golden Gate Bridge on April 2, 1942.
After a 16-day voyage, the Hornet was still about 600 miles from Japan but the order was given to launch — Japanese fishermen had spotted the carrier, prompting concern that they'd warn the mainland.
Kappeler's bomber, the 11th to launch, was flying low toward targets in Yokohama when it was intercepted by Japanese fighter pilots.
“They came so close in, I remember being able to see their faces,” Kappeler told a Press Democrat reporter in 2002.
“They weren't sure who we were and what we were doing there. Our pilot and co-pilot had their eyes focused on two fighters on their left side and I saw two more approaching us from the right. We didn't have headsets on so I tried to shout at them but I lost my voice. I remember tapping them on the shoulder and just pointing. Our turret gunner started firing and he hit two of them. We didn't see them go down but we saw smoke pouring out and they pulled away from us.”
Kappeler's plane was still short of its assigned targets in Yokohama when it dropped its bombs on what appeared to be an oil refinery, then continued on to China. The entire crew bailed out in darkness when the fuel ran out, then went in search of friendly Chinese willing to help them avoid Japanese troops.
With the Doolittle mission, the United States had struck its first substantial blow against Japan. Its immediate boost to Americans' psyche was immense.
But the Raiders themselves weren't able to celebrate. Three of the 80 were killed after bailing out of their gas-starved bombers. Eight were captured by the Japanese; of those, three were executed and one died from disease.
The survivors reunited for the first time in 1945 at a grand party that Doolittle threw in Miami. Eleven years later, Kappeler was back in Miami, on vacation, when he met his future bride.
“He called on Valentine's Day in 1957 and he proposed,” Betty Jo said. “I accepted.”
Early on, what did Kappeler tell the love of his life about his experiences as a Doolittle Raider? Nothing.
“Frank wasn't one to talk about his medals,” Betty Jo said. The honors he received included the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.
Kappeler had been retired from the Air Force for a year when they settled in Santa Rosa in 1967. Kappeler purchased the former Mill's real estate office in 1976 and ran it for several years.
In retirement, Kappeler enjoyed working on the 12 acres around his country home, the company of his daughter and three grandchildren, pets, a bit of tennis and golf and his and Betty Jo's annual excursions to Tokyo Raiders reunions.
“He took great pride in that group,” his wife said.
Dementia took a toll on Kappeler's life in recent years. He suffered a decline just recently and on Tuesday was mostly unresponsive.
“I held his hand and talked to him,” Betty Jo said. “I think he knew what I was saying.”
In addition to his wife, Kappeler is survived by his daughter, Francia Kappeler of Santa Rosa, brother Jack Kappeler of Bakersfield and three grandchildren.
Plans are underway for a funeral service that may include a fly-over, possibly by a B-25.