Fredric Arnold was a “reluctant warrior,” creative dynamo and decorated World War II combat pilot.
He miraculously survived 50 missions of flying P-38 Lightning warplanes over North Africa and Europe.
The death he witnessed and inflicted in war was in deep contrast with the mild-mannered child prodigy artist from Chicago who spent the rest of his life as a creator: drawing, writing, acting and inventing.
“He was a sensitive artist who ended up killing and [was] at risk of being killed in combat,” his son, Marc Arnold, told Fox News Digital.
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“It was a torturous experience for him,” he said.
Yet the human gift of creativity within Arnold survived and thrived despite the scars of war.
Among other creative achievements, Arnold patented the aluminum-and-nylon folding beach chair, so familiar to summertime sand, surf, backyards and barbecues across the United States.
“Portable and easy to store, the American-style Lawn Chair is the ultimate symbol of the ideal summer day, along with cold beers and smoking barbecues,” Publisher Phaidon Press wrote of Arnold’s leisure-time creation in its 2018 coffee-table tome, “Chair: 500 Designs That Matter.”
“He was a sensitive artist who ended up killing and [was] at risk of being killed in combat.” — son Marc Arnold
His invention influenced the way millions of Americans enjoy idyllic summers and won accolades for its contribution to industrial design.
The popular invention would be a lifetime highlight for most people.
For Arnold, it was a mere footnote in one chapter of a truly remarkable American life.
His experiences, artistry and sharp mechanical aptitude helped train thousands of air-combat pilots who served after him.
He was an innovator and entrepreneur after the war, then a novelist and a TV and movie actor in his 60s, at an age when many people begin to retire.
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Yet Arnold was haunted by the memories of the war the rest of his life. And he made a promise after the war to honor his buddies killed in combat before he died.
He fulfilled that promise to his brothers in arms in triumphant sculpture on a national scale — his last grand creative effort as an artist, at age 94.
‘Naive about military matters’
Fredric Lionel Kohn was born to parents of Russian Jewish descent, David and Idele Kohn, in Chicago on Jan. 23, 1922.
The gifted artist was a paid professional by 11 years old, supporting his family by drawing portraits of Second City movers and shakers.
Fredric Arnold became his Anglicized professional name as his family battled antisemitism.
He was just 19 when the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Arnold dutifully enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He mistakenly believed that pursuit plane P-38 Lightning pilots would serve only stateside in defending the homeland.
“There’s no question in my mind that he was a skilled aviator.” — Dr. John M. Curatola, National World War II Musuem
“He was naive about military matters,” son Marc Arnold said.
He shipped overseas instead in the early years of the war, when the Germans still enjoyed superiority in both air power and pilot experience.
Arnold helped turn the tide of World War II. He fought over North Africa and Sicily in 1942 and 1943 — miraculously surviving 50 missions.
The sensitive artist proved a ferocious warrior. He was promoted to major by age 23.
“There’s no question in my mind that he was a skilled aviator who survived flying high-performance aircraft in combat environments,” Dr. John M. Curatola, historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, told Fox News Digital.
Arnold followed each mission by drawing combat sketches to illustrate the battle. They often explained deadly mistakes made by American pilots — and were used to train thousands of future pilots.
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“Decoys are death!” reads the notes on one sketch. “Don’t let the ‘sitter’ fool you. He’s a decoy for the rest of the squadron.”
He was shot down twice — the second time captured by German officers.
“I felt no hatred, only fear,” he wrote later in his 1984 wartime novel, “Doorknob Five Two.”
His fear as an enemy combatant was heightened by fear over his faith. Germany’s savage mistreatment of Jews was well-known by the middle of the war, even if its death camps were not yet discovered.
“I squared my helmet and adjusted my goggles over my forehead, trying to hide the Jewish star sewn into my helmet,” he wrote.
“All the while I felt their eyes on my prominent nose — my ethnic identification. No U.S. insignia. No officer’s bars or squadron number, but a Jew.”
“I squared my helmet and adjusted my goggles over my forehead, trying to hide the Jewish star sewn into my helmet.” — Major Fredric Arnold
He miraculously escaped a POW camp, then returned to fly four more missions before he was finally relieved of combat duty.
Arnold was one of only two pilots in his 14-man unit to live through World War II.
He and the other survivor, Jim Hagenback, made a promise as young men that Arnold would store away for 70 years.
“We vowed to each other that whoever was left standing would do something to honor the twelve,” Arnold wrote years later, after Hagenback’s death.
“I am the last man standing of my original group.”
‘Quite the Renaissance man’
Arnold pursued his career in art in New York City after the war. He legally changed his name from Kohn to Arnold.
“It was one way of putting the war behind him and starting new,” said son Marc.
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Arnold possessed a rare combination of high levels of artistic creativity and mechanical aptitude.
After combat duty, he helped the Army design improvements to P-38 performance and designed a cockpit urinal for female pilots — a convenience the military apparently overlooked.
His most well-known innovation was devoted not to wartime but to leisure time.
“He’s quite the Renaissance man,” said Dr. Curatola of the National World War II Museum.
He devised a way to bend aluminum, a fairly new material in the 1940s, to create the type of “American lawn chair” known today: collapsible, sturdy, portable and so lightweight a child can carry one.
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It was inspired by a frustrating encounter as his wife Natalie dragged heavy furniture to a Long Island beach.
“Considerable difficulty has been encountered in the design and manufacture of chairs of the folding type which when erected forms a stable and rigid body support,” Arnold wrote on his patent application, filed May 22, 1956.
He received the patent on Feb. 3, 1959.
The chairs proved a pop-culture sensation.
He founded the Fredric Arnold Co. in Brooklyn, in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, which at its height produced 14,000 folding beach chairs per day.
Despite his success, the war and the memories of his buddies killed overseas haunted Arnold.
“We vowed to each other that whoever was left standing would do something to honor the twelve.” — Major Fredric Arnold
He suffered a mental “crisis,” his son called it, in 1977. We now recognize it as post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was encouraged in treatment to write out his experiences. More than 1,000 pages poured out of him after being bottled up inside the artist for nearly four decades.
“His goal was to write a confession to his children,” his son Marc said.
It was condensed down into the novel “Doorknob Five Two,” his call sign in the war.
Much like “Catch-22” by World War II bomber crewman Joseph Heller, it was a fictionalized account that chronicled the real trauma suffered by American airmen under the constant threat of death.
“I had fired at them, killed them, yet never really seen them,” Arnold wrote of the enemies he slaughtered from the cockpit of his warplane.
Now a novelist, Arnold pursued yet another career in his 60s: acting.
“I had fired at them, killed them, yet never really seen them.” — Major Arnold
He was never a leading man, but proved a natural. With no acting experience, he landed roles on some of the most popular TV shows of the 1980s: “Dynasty,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Knots Landing” and “Punky Brewster.”
He also made it onto the silver screen with a small role in the hit comedy “The Naked Gun.”
The most important chapter in his creative life was still to come: fulfilling the promise he made to honor the 12 young men from his unit who never returned.
He spent his final years devoted to a monumental bronze sculpture called “Lest We Forget: The Mission.”
He completed the dramatic work in 2016, at age 94.
The haunting sculpture depicts 12 pilots — his 12 buddies killed in action — getting their final briefing.
There are two empty spaces in the briefing room, representing Arnold and fellow survivor Hagenback.
“He considered it the most important work of his life,” said his son Marc.
“We shall never forget the courage of those who defended our freedoms,” Major Arnold said after completing the sculpture.
‘A national treasure’
Fredric Arnold died of natural causes in Boulder, Colorado, on May 28, 2018.
It was Memorial Day.
He was 96 years old.
He left behind his wife of 71 years, Natalie, and three children.
He gifted the nation he fought for and nearly died for new post-war ease with his beach chairs.
“Fredric Arnold is truly a national treasure, both as a Fighter Pilot of WWII who survived 50 combat missions and as a talented sculptor.” — Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairmen Powell, Myers, Pace
He also gave the nation a tribute to war heroes with his monumental sculpture.
“Lest We Forget: The Mission” resides in a place of honor at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It has since expanded in meaning beyond his 12 buddies.
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It “was created to help ensure that future generations would understand the human cost of war and to honor the memory of the more than 88,000 U.S. airmen who perished during the war,” the museum states online.
“Fredric Arnold is truly a national treasure, both as a Fighter Pilot of WWII who survived 50 combat missions and as a talented sculptor,” read a statement issued upon his death by three former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Richard Myers and Gen. Peter Pace.
A memorial stone next to Arnold’s grave shares the lifelong wish of a creator tortured by the memory of those who had fallen — and those he had killed.
“May the peoples of the world learn to solve their differences peacefully.”
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