A True Story: An Hero of War in the Pacific, Spying Behind Philippines and an Unbreakable Spirit…
In 2010, before I went to Afghanistan as an embedded photojournalist, I road-tripped across the American West, stopping in small towns and talking to people in cafés, taverns, and even barbershops. The mood was grim. People seemed to be clinging to their lives hoping the economy would turn around, the wars would end, and their neighborhoods would fill up once again. Too many people with whom I spoke had lost their homes in the ’08 Great Recession, and few of those foreclosures had been repurchased.
After my return from Afghanistan, I made a point of taking more road trips, and I’ve visited thirty-four states in a Pontiac GTO. I’ve sat down and talked with Nebraska farmers, oil workers from North Dakota drawn to the fracking boom, tech employees in Silicon Valley, and small-town Texans, Floridians, and Virginians. No matter where I went, no matter whom I spoke to, the mood was the same: grim. Aboard an Amtrak train, I had dinner with one resolute but world-weary twenty-something whose wife and children lived in Fresno. After losing his job there, he looked for work in Central California for over a year with no luck. He finally got a job at two-thirds his previous pay—in South Dakota. He lived in a trailer out there in a state where he knew nobody, coming home to his loved ones when money allowed. “At least I can keep up with the mortgage payments.”
We’ve been through the wringer as a nation since 9/11. We are a country struggling to redefine itself and find our way again after fifteen years of war, hardship, divisiveness, and economic privation. All of us have been affected in some way by war, the economy, and the sense that if we were ever a great nation, we aren’t any longer. Our power seems to be receding at home and abroad, and the luster of our nation’s accomplishments has worn off. We’ve been here before. The Depression, World War II, the economic chaos, and the brutal reality of battling the tide of Fascism tested an entire generation like few times in our history.
After witnessing the downtrodden mood across the country, I knew we needed something to lift us up, we needed an example of hope and resilience. I knew it was time to tell Pappy Gunn’s story, to bring his example of determination and perseverance into our public consciousness.
Pappy Gunn and his family survived against incredible odds. His was a family of heroes, from his wife, Polly, who risked her life standing up to her Japanese captors at Santo Thomas Internment Camp for the sake of her critically ill daughter, to his son Nat who came of age while imprisoned in Santo Thomas and remained committed to only one thing: keeping his mother and sisters alive. Pappy’s teenaged daughter Julie, despite enduring months in a full-body cast due to an illness she suffered in the prison camp, chose to become a spy and courier for the anti-Japanese resistance in the Philippines. Time after time, she risked her life passing through checkpoints under the gaze of heavily armed Japanese soldiers, contraband and messages secreted away beneath her cast. Then there was Pappy himself, a man so driven to rescue his family that he robbed Army supply depots at gunpoint, stole airplanes, ignored repeated wounds, and even forced a surgeon to amputate one of his fingers so that he could keep flying. He was shot down, shot up, crash-landed in jungles, survived and thrived where dozens of his friends went to their deaths in poorly armed planes that proved no match for the Japanese.
He was a small-town Arkansan with a sixth-grade formal education who could barely read and write but intuitively understood all things mechanical. He never took “no” for an answer, and when he failed, he climbed back to his feet and tried again. And again. And again. Through sheer force of will and native ingenuity, he conceived and built a revolutionary weapon that utterly demolished the Japanese air force and navy in the Southwest Pacific.
Pappy Gunn embodied the best of the American spirit: a refusal to quit no matter the odds, a can-do attitude, a disregard for red tape, a refusal to accept failure and defeat, and a disdain for unnecessary and hindering bureaucracy. He burned with the desire to win at cost.
Pappy and Polly Gunn and their children are the kind of Americans we need to remember right now. A man and a family who found a way to succeed by breaking all the rules, ignoring the naysayers, and getting things done. Theirs is a reminder of who we are as a people and how we can rise to any occasion—no matter how harsh—and persevere against all odds.
Even after his death, Pappy continues to inspire. While I was in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I had the opportunity to interview many pilots who flew with Pappy. They spun Pappy yarns with such fondness that even fifty years later, you could tell they still loved him. His story inspired me, too, in some of my life’s most difficult moments.
I’m hoping it will do the same with Indestructible’s readers, who will turn the last page with a renewed sense of pride in our country and the kind of citizens it has produced and can continue to produce. Perhaps they will also realize that whatever they are struggling with in their own lives, we Americans know how to find a path to victory.