Born in New York City, Francis “Frank” James Cleary was the youngest of four children. He enlisted in the Air Force on July 21, 1958, when he was only 17 years old. He went on to serve for over 20 years as a combat photographer, among other positions.
As a combat photographer, Cleary would often ride in the back seat of F-4s during bombing runs in order to help assess the damage. During the Vietnam War, he served in Korat, Thailand with the 601st Photo Flight as an aerial photographer with the technical photography branch. Seven months into his tour, he was severely injured in a bombing run, where he was attempting to photograph the battle damage. Cleary went home to do work for the Office of Aerospace Research from 1964-1966, and he then retrained into the ground safety field. Cleary served as an occupational health and safety manager, investigating aircraft and vehicle accidents.
During his service, he received a Meritorious Service Medal, an Air Force Commendation Medal and an Air Force Outstanding Unit Medal..
After retiring from the Air Force Sept. 30, 1979, Cleary spent many years in civil service. He retired from the Federal Aviation Administration in the 1990s. He was an active member of his community, serving in the Catholic War Veterans Post 168 and volunteering with Meals on Wheels, the election board, and the Knights of Columbus.
Cleary’s family was the center of his life. He was the loving husband and father to five children, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His daughter, Sharon Preszler, was the first female F-16 fighter pilot in the Air Force.
Cleary passed away on April 24, 2020, at the age of 79.
We honor his service.
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Writer: Aubrey Hutson