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Gainesville WWII veteran honored for his service during his 90th birthday celebration
Larry Downing drew a picture of his father, Frank, with late president Franklin D. Roosevelt as a gift for Frank’s 90th birthday. - photo by BRANDEE A. THOMAS

At 90 years old, Frank Downing’s class of peers is a small one.

As a World War II veteran, the numbers become even more elite.

For his recent birthday, Downing’s children were on a mission to make this celebration the best yet by going to great lengths to ensure that his military service was properly recognized.

Based on the happy tears glistening in his eyes throughout his party, one could speculate they made the Purple Heart recipient very proud.

"By gosh, this is such a privilege," said Downing, a Gainesville resident, with a slight tremor of emotion creeping into his voice.

The privilege he was referencing was a special presentation made my members of the local chapter of the national Military Order of the Purple Heart organization.

"His daughter (Nancy Wiley) contacted us and told us that he was a Purple Heart recipient and a World War II veteran. That’s very rare to have a veteran from (that era) that’s still living," said retired Sgt. Major Robert Nelson.

"We decided right then that we wanted to present him with a citation, but instead of just (mailing it), we wanted to present it ourselves and show our respect."

Though Downing says the attack that led to him receiving the Purple Heart in 1944 was a "very long time ago," that doesn’t make his efforts any less worthy of appreciation.

From inside a tank on a 2,000-mile mission, a soldier’s todays can become eerily similar to his yesterdays.

The monotony can be overwhelming, but a young Downing got more action than he’d bargained for during World War II as a tank driver. His assignment? Navigate the armored vehicle from Normandy to Berlin.

On his first day of duty, his driver was killed. Although he mourned the loss, Downing and his crew had no choice but to carry on.

A time later, Downing’s tank would come under fire again.

"Me and my assistant driver were on duty in Germany until midnight. When the gunnery relieved me, I heard a lot of shooting," Downing remembers.

"They got my gunnery. His right leg was shot off.

"The next morning, I wound up talking to a bunch of infantrymen when a shell came in and hit me. With a mortar shell, you don’t hear it until it explodes.

"All of my crew in my tank was either wounded or killed."

After completing his service, Downing went on to work for the Veterans Administration system of hospitals. In the late 1960s, he transferred to Atlanta, where he met Vietnam veteran Tommy Clack.

"When I came back from Vietnam, the (Atlanta VA Medical Center) was just opening up. (Downing) was in charge of recreation," recalls Clack.

"He would get us out of the hospital. We’d go to ball games, bowling or sightseeing. He became a father to a lot of us guys.

"His generation that worked at the VA at that time, they went to great lengths to lift our spirits and I really appreciate that."

Although the triple amputee is busy with his work as an advocate for veterans, Clack makes it a priority to attend Downing’s birthday celebrations.

"It’s important to me to come to his party out of respect for him and what he did for hundreds of Vietnam veterans," Clack said.

"We’re still friends 40 years later. That is a testament to him as a person."

During the party over the weekend, Clack presented Downing with a hand-crafted wooden plaque with an inscription that reads, "Freedom Isn’t Free."

Downing’s son, Larry Downing, also presented him with a special visual reminder of his time in service. For this 90th celebration, the younger Downing drew a picture of his father in uniform, sharing a laugh with the late president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"It looks like I’m talking to FDR. Your mother would’ve just loved that," Frank said with a wistful smile.

Although the party was full of serious recognition, it wasn’t without the usual birthday frivolities like balloons, cake ... and Hooters girls.

No one can remember exactly how it started or when, but Frank Downing has been celebrating his birthday at Hooters for at least the last 12 years.

"He comes because he likes the wings," said daughter Teresa Bodine, of Murrayville with a laugh.

"It started out with four or five guys and that went on for about three years. Then the girls said, ‘Hey, we wanna get in on it’ and it started to grow.

"Everybody’s here. It’s just a tradition."

Every year is a celebration of Downing’s life, but this year, Bodine and her siblings wanted to add an extra layer with the military presentations and also letters of recognition from Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

"He knew it would be a big party because we have a big family, but he had no idea of the military angle we were taking this year," Bodine said.

"We didn’t talk about his service much until the last five or six years. As daddy gets older and he watches what goes on in the world, I believe he becomes more sentimental and realizes the magnitude of what he did.

"The older he gets, the more stories he remembers and the more he shares with us. We thought it was time all he’s done be recognized.

"Daddy certainly deserves it."

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