Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

George Frena And 'The Big Wheel'

Unfortunately, I suspect George Frena is no longer with us. Nonetheless, I would like to introduce you to him. I'm sure that is what he would want and, in fact, he gave me permission to use all the photos and audio in this post in any way I wanted to.

Who is George? He is, or was, a patient of mine who I had very much enjoyed seeing. By 2010, I had been taking care of him for a number of years and on each visit he would often tell me stories about when he was a 'blister gunner' (you know, the guys that were in the rotating, see through bubbles with machine guns) on a B-29 bomber in World War II. He started telling me these stories after he learned that I enjoyed photography because, you see, he was an artist as well.  A painter. Not a house painter, a picture painter. In fact, because he was a painter, when he joined the Air Force  his crew elected him to design and paint onto the fuselage the insignia for the bomber they were to fly. He had the opportunity to do that because the crew took the plane 'right out of the factory'.  I will tell you more about the insignia in just a short while.

George loved telling his stories and, as they say, he wasn't getting any younger. So one day I asked him if at his next visit he might consider letting me take his photograph and interview him. He was delighted to do so! I walked him right out and booked him an hour appointment (no charge - try doing that these days) for a couple weeks down the line.

George was a bit less animated 'on tape' then he was without being recorded. Or maybe I only thought that was the case because I had heard the stories before. At any rate, the audio below is my 12 minute edit from a 30 minute interview. He was glad to let me take his portrait as well. But he loved that cap and wanted to keep it on.

The interview occurred back in 2010 and I was recently thinking about it. I could have sworn that I had written a post about the visit we had a long time ago, but no matter where I looked I couldn't find it. I also couldn't find any edited audio, so it all must have sat on my hard drive for the last six years. Today it finds its way off that drive and out into the world.


George Frena - WWII B-29 Blister Gunner    © Howard Grill


Ultimately, I was able to find information online about B29 bomber 'nose art' and there it was.....a photo of George's plane, complete with the fuselage painting he had personally done. I printed out the information and gave it to him on his next visit. You never saw such a big smile! I would attribute these photos, but I can no longer find that online source. 

Directly below is a photo (from that source) of Frena and his crew in front of their plane "The Big Wheel". I am uncertain which one George is. I would guess one of the four men with similar jackets in the front row since I believe there were four gunners (one under each wing, one at the tail, and one on the top of the bomber).

"The Big Wheel" And Crew

And here is what started it all.  This photo is of a painting that George did of his insignia for the plane. He decided to make the insignia in the shape of a wheel with the center and each segment of the wheel meant to represent one of the eleven men on the plane.  The center of the wheel is meant to represent the pilot, who was from Arizona, and hence the 'bucking bronco'. The bombadier was from Arizona and is represented by the cactus. Florence is George's wifes name. The 'tail gunners' girllgriend was 'Little Audrey'. The engineer was represented by the pliers. The radar operator was signified by the radar scope. The 'top gunner' and radio operator were both from Texas, hence two Texas longhorns. Another one of the gunners was attending the  University of Mississippi and the school mascot (at the time) was  'Colonel Reb' at the bottom of the wheel. The navigator's wife (or girlfriend....he wasn't sure) was Phyllis and the co-pilot's was JoAnn. And thus was born "The Big Wheel".


George told me it took him two days to actually paint the design onto the bomber's fuselage, and below is a photo of 'the real deal' taken back during the war.


Based on his age and condition at the time I was taking care of him in 2010, I suspect George is gone. I don't know for sure, as I moved on to another job later that year after having worked at the same institution for 25 years. 

He had given me his phone number when I left but I never did give him a call. I feel bad about that as I am sure it would have meant a lot to him, and to me as well. It's just one of those things that we mean to do but never get around to. Now I can't because, well, I don't really want to learn for sure that he is no longer with us. I can hope that maybe he is.

Unfortunately, there aren't many people around anymore that lived through what George experienced. I hope nobody else has to experience anything like it again.