Piqua Bad Boy Becomes 'One Man Air Force'
Don Gentile Remembered for Flying Under Piqua Bridge, Being No. 1 Flying Ace of All Time
By Judy Deeter
PIQUA - On July 6, 1986, a statue of Piqua aviator and hometown hero, the late Don Gentile, was dedicated (pictured above). The statue is located in downtown Piqua on Veterans Way near the corner of North Main and East High streets. Most visitors stop by to read the description of the medals he won and the planes he flew, but the real story of his life can be seen in the replica of his face—the happy-go-lucky smile and eyes that look to the sky.
Don Gentile was born in Piqua on December 6, 1920 at the home of his maternal grandmother on Garnsey Street. He was named Dominic Salvatore Gentile by his Italian immigrant parents Pasquale “Patsy” and Josephine Gentile.
Gentile said that from the time he was small he wanted to fly. From a platform in the family apple tree, he guided imaginary planes through the air, made model planes from wood and he and his sister Edith spent many childhood hours looking at airplane books. When he was 6, he began asking his father to take him to the WACO factory (Weaver Aircraft Company) in Troy to see planes parked outside the plant; they made the trip nearly every Saturday and Sunday. (In those years, WACO was the world’s largest airplane producer.) As Gentile grew older, he went to the plant alone—always fascinated to see the beautiful machines of the sky.
Even though America was going through the Great Depression during the 1930s—times were hard for most Americans—nevertheless Gentile dreamed of flying and of one day owning his own plane. He found out that he could take flying lessons on Sunday afternoons at the Vandalia airport for $15 for half an hour. When he was 16, he finally got into to a plane and found the place he belonged—the sky. His flight instructor, Capt. Brown, assured his doubting father that he belonged there too.
In an April 1944, article in the Dayton Daily News, Gentile said: "Flying came into my mind like fresh air smoked up into the lungs, and was food in my hungry mouth and strength in my weak arms. I felt that way the first time I got into an airplane. I wasn’t nervous when I soloed. There was excitement in me but it was the nice kind you get when you’re going home after a long, long, unhappy time away."
To earn money for flying, he waited tables at his father’s tavern. If his father gave him $5 for a date, $3 or $4 went into the bank to pay for his flying needs.
Gentile not only wanted to fly; he wanted his own plane. He tried to buy a plane for $300, but was “swindled” out of his money when the plane’s owner had the aircraft flown to Indiana after the purchase. To console his heartbroken son, Gentile’s father purchased a single-seat Aerosport biplane for $450.
While this brought happiness to young Gentile, it brought headaches to most of the town of Piqua. Gentile became a barnstormer—buzzing across Piqua treetops. Gentile also said in the 1944 article:
"On Saturday afternoons I would beat up the town in my airplane and the cops chased me in that, too I could see their cars running after me, trying to get my number (identification on the airplane), I’d raise the hair on everybody’s head with my propeller. I’d blow in the curtains on Betty Levering’s house (his girlfriend) and make the geraniums in Mary Dill’s front yard give up the petals."
Gentile was known as a “crazy” kid. In the book DON S. GENTILE, SOLDIER OF GOD AND COUNTRY, Mark Spagnuolo tells of Gentile’s most famous Piqua feat—flying under the Main Street Bridge. Supposedly, he measured both the height and width of both the bridge and plane. He determined that he would have less than three feet total clearance to do it; he did it—at 100 miles per hour!
Although the Piqua Police called Gentile a “menace” and threatened to put him in jail for low-level flying, what he did over Piqua prepared him for wartime combat missions.
Gentile recalled (in the 1944 interview) when world events came to his doorstep.
It was in September 1939 when someone brought a copy of the Piqua Daily Call newspaper into his school. The headlines read “Hitler Invades Poland.” Both teachers and staff ran into the corridors to read the paper.
Gentile said: "A lot of fellows could read their death sentence in that headline. Millions and millions of fellows all over the world read their death sentence in that headline that morning. But I didn’t feel that way. I felt standing in the school corridor in Piqua with all that excitement all around me, that I was going to get into the war. But I was ready for it. I had confidence in myself if they would get me off the ground and put me in the air."
Gentile wanted to be a military pilot as soon as he graduated from high school. In those days, it was “the law” that pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps must have attended college for two years of pilot training. Both his parents and the U.S. Army Air Corps objected his ambition to join the military following his high school graduation. (He applied to Ohio State “just to keep his parents happy”.) Finally, he persuaded his parents to let him join the Royal Air Force in Canada. In August 1941, his father drove him to Windsor, Ontario, Canada to sign up. His father later remarked that once he had signed the papers for his son to join the RAF, Gentile was so excited that he jumped across the table and kissed him in front of the Canadian officers.
The RAF sent him to Glendale, California for training and then to Great Britain in December 1941.
Things did not work out in England as he had hoped. Instead of putting him in combat, the RAF made him an instructor. One day he took revenge by climbing in his Spitfire and flying low over a stadium where a dog race was being held—probably in a manner reminiscent of his Piqua flying days. Many spectators thought he was a German raider and ran for their lives. People and dogs ran everywhere!
When he returned to his base, he was confined to quarters, relieved of his instructor duties and transferred. His transfer was to the No. 133 Eagle Squadron, home to some of the world’s finest pilots and planes. The World War II RAF Eagle Squadrons were made up of U. S. pilots who wanted to fly missions prior to America’s entrance into the war. Gentile made his first two hits with this group. Over France August 1942, he downed two German aircraft in ten minutes!
On September 29, 1942, the Eagle Squadrons became part of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Gentile became a member of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force in Europe and as part of the transfer was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Other promotions followed in January 1943 (to First Lieutenant) and in September 1943 to Captain and Flight Commander of the Squadron. He then began flying a Mustang fighter plane.
On five missions, he flew with Lt. John Godfrey as his wingman. Gentile and Godfrey are considered to be one of the first and best combat teams of World War II. No other air combat teams downed as many planes and Gentile and Godfrey.
In April 1944, while escorting a B-17 to a Berlin, Germany raid, Gentile downed his 27th enemy plane and surpassed the record of World War I Ace, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. The plane he downed was that of Germany’s number one Air Ace, Major Kurt von Meyer. Gentile was 23 at the time.
President Roosevelt called him “Captain Courageous” and on the day General Eisenhower pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Gentile, Eisenhower said he was as “a one-man Air Force.” Gentile received 14 American and 7 foreign medals.
Gentile returned to Piqua on a War Bond Drive tour in 1944. City Fathers proclaimed the day to be “Gentile Day” and held a parade. Thousands craned their necks to get a view of their hometown hero. Handsome Gentile was a great promoter of the War Bond cause—especially with the ladies. His sister once said that he had been mistaken for movie star Robert Taylor when he was training in California. Everyone liked him. Gentile remarked at the time, “I left Piqua as Don and I have returned to you as that same boy.”
(Note: The JOURNAL OF THE AIR FORCE ASSOCIATION, AIR FORCE MAGAZINE 2011 USAF ALMANAC, Pg. 122 – May 2011 features a photograph of Gentile an Army Air Forces Ace of World War II. He is credited with 19.83 victories.)
In 1945, he married Isabella Masdea, whom he had known since he was a boy. The couple eventually had three sons, Don Jr., Joseph and Patrick.
He left the military for a short time, but soon returned. He became a military test pilot and was one of the first to fly Bell XP-59.
He was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base while studying military studies at the University of Maryland. In January 1951, he was killed in a T-33 Jet Trainer between Ritchie and Forestville, Maryland (near Andrew Air Force Base). He experienced mechanical difficulties during the flight and died while trying to get his passenger to eject from the plane. He died while trying to save another man. He was 30 years old.
He was buried in Columbus, Ohio on a very cold day. On the day of his funeral it was 13 degrees below zero and 7 inches of snow covered the ground. Many friends were unable to attend.
He was posthumously given the rank of Major and given a diploma from the University of Maryland.
Aside from the statue in Piqua, there are markers and tributes to him at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, in 1995 he was enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame and in 2003 he became part of the Dayton Walk of Fame in the Wright Dunbar Business Village.
Anyone looking at the Gentile statue in Piqua should look not only at the names of his planes and his medals and citations on the base, but rather at the replica of the face looking toward the sky and the joyful smile on his face. These expressions also tell the story of the boy who loved to fly.