Minnesota B-17 Pilot Had Unique War History
'Hang The Expense' Aircraft Nose Art Told A Tale
November 1, 2021
Frank Valesh had a career in military aviation that was brief, interesting, and frequently violent.
From September 1943 until August 1944 Valesh flew B-17s for the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force in Great Britain. His bombers all had the same nose art featuring a human female with an impossibly exaggerated anatomy and the name "Hang the Expense."
Valesh was born in Graceville, Minnesota. In the middle of the "Roaring 20s" his family moved to a house on Dayton Avenue in St. Paul's Merriam Park.
His mother's maiden name was Burns, which explains why a family of Bohemians would live in a predominately Irish neighborhood.
Frank endured the nuns at St. Marks Elementary School and the Christian Brothers at Cretin High School where he was an ROTC cadet. After a year of college, he joined the U.S. Army in January 1942.
By April he was in the Aviation Cadet program from which he graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant. In August 1943 Valesh was in command of a brand-new B-17 and on his way across the Atlantic.
When Valesh and his aircrew got to England the U.S. Army sent them to fly with a bomb group based at Thorpe-Abbotts. Known as the "Bloody Hundredth," the unit had just lost nine out of 21 aircraft it sent on a disastrous raid against the German aircraft factories in Regensburg.
The crew painted "Hang the Expense" on their airplane and successfully flew combat missions until maintenance required them to stand down for a short period. The aircraft was back in service on Nov. 26, 1943, and Lt. Valesh was scheduled for a local flight to "slow time" one of the engines.
Thorp-Abbotts had a canteen attended by two young American women who were attracted to Valesh and asked him to take them flying.
They wore uniforms and looked very military which might have helped cause the ensuing problem. Frank invited them along on the local flight.
The tailwheel failed and the aircraft became uncontrollable causing the takeoff to be aborted. "Hang the Expense" ran off the runway, thru a ditch and finished up in a farm field. The aircraft was doomed anyway due to the broken wheel. It was Frank's bad luck to have the women aboard.
A co-pilot and navigator from another crew were the only other occupants. All five escaped with minor injuries, but the aircraft was "totaled." The three officers claimed they were just trying to raise moral among the ground staff. In the base rumor mill, there was a lot of talk about "The Mile High Club," whatever that is.
The women were not technically military and worked for the Red Cross. The makeshift crew were charged with "illegally flying civilians on a military aircraft." Lawyers had put the brass in a bind.
Valesh was one of their best pilots, but discipline had to be maintained. It took months for the court martial to convene, so Valesh kept flying missions and was promoted to first lieutenant. When they finally heard his case, Frank was found guilty, fined $100 and sent back to flying.
Four other B-17s flown by Valesh were so damaged by the German fighters or anti-aircraft artillery that they were scrapped. With one exception he always got his crew back to England even if the aircraft was only suited for salvage. Four days after the court martial, "Hang the Expense" took a direct hit in the tail gunner's position leaving a big hole and a barely controllable airplane.
Sgt. Roy Urich vanished with his guns and was presumed to have "vaporized" in the explosion. After he got on the ground Frank looked at the damage and said, "I'm getting damned tired of this business."
It turned out Urich had lined his position with flak jackets and was wearing his parachute. Though severely injured, he landed without further damage and was discovered in a POW camp after VE Day.
Valesh became a lead pilot and flew first in the Group or sometimes the entire Wing. His crew was assigned a new "path finder" with H2S radar, but another "Hang the Expense" was damaged beyond repair when they were forced to attempt a night landing in poor weather.
Before he was finished, Valesh had another airplane shot up and scrapped making seven he had "used up." After 29 missions Valesh was returned to the United States and assigned to a B-29. He declined to give the B-29 a name and the war ended before it got to the Pacific.
While he was in England Frank Valesh wrote faithfully to his mother in St. Paul. After he died in 1984, Frank's nephew donated his letters to the 100th Bomb Group Foundation. They are fascinating reading and can be found on the Foundation's web site, 100thbg.com.
After the war, Valesh retuned to St. Paul and until 1983 lived in the house on Dayton Avenue where he grew up. His ambition was to live quietly, but his combat experience haunted him.
He was the long-time manager of the St. Paul Farmer's Market and a regular at Jim O'Gara's Bar on Snelling Avenue where he usually stopped for "a shot and a beer" after work.
Well-known for being a gregarious person, he seldom spoke about the war and many of his friends never knew the story of "Hang the Expense."
There is a happy ending and a great love story here. In 1983 Valesh married Helen Riegel. She was his "girlfriend" for many years and Frank often said he finally found peace being with her.