Great fighter pilot passes

Col. Hank Snow, who flew in three wars, dies at 93

Hank Snow sits quietly during a debriefing session after his last combat mission in Vietnam in June 1970. “That is a young man who is very, very tired,” Snow told his biographer John Mollison of the photo. (Photo provided — U.S. Air Force)

SARANAC LAKE — A decorated pilot who flew 666 combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 93.

Col. Harold “Hank” Snow lived in Saranac Lake but grew up in AuSable Forks. He accumulated 1,200 hours of combat flight time during his 30-year military career. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross six times, along with countless other commendations.

“Simply put, Hank Snow is a soldier of the kind the world will never see again,” wrote John Mollison, an artist, author and filmmaker in his biography “666 The Devil’s Number — the Amazing Service of Col. Hank Snow,” published in 2013.

Mollison spoke with the Enterprise Friday about Snow’s life and military career, calling him an exceptional man and one of the greatest American fighter pilots.

This drawing, by John Mollison, depicts the P-51B Mustang then Capt. Hank Snow was flying when he was shot down in China in May 1945 during World War II. (Image provided — JohnMollison.com)

Adirondack Daily Enterprise: How did you come to write a biography of Hank Snow?

John Mollison: I had met a couple of his squadron mates. As a joke, when I was doing interviews, I used to ask, ‘Who’s the greatest fighter pilot you’ve ever met?’ You’d get incredibly funny answers. I asked three guys who was the greatest fighter pilot you ever met, and they all just said, without any hesitation, “Hank Snow.” The guys I was talking to were qualified, capable pilots, and for them to immediately defer to Hank, I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve got meet this guy.’

ADE: How tough was it to get his story?

Mollison: It took years. If you would ask him about his World War II service, at first he’d say, ‘Yeah, I flew 100 missions, and boy, I loved the P-51 Mustang.’ Then after a while he’d say, ‘Yeah, I flew the P-51, and I was shot down.’ Then he explains how he was shot down. Then he explains more and more. Hank’s interview took a long time because he had to get used to the idea that telling his story was important because of the history of it. He was exceptional in the way that he wasn’t the kind of guy who bragged about his accomplishments, yet his power and his strength were apparent. He was truly a leader of people.

ADE: He flew over a time span that saw vast changes in warfare, as well as changes in American politics and culture. How challenging and significant is that?

Mollison: Hank loved the idea and the belief that you are loyal to something — not blindly loyal, but loyal in the sense that when you decide to support something, you follow through. When Hank joined the Army Air Force in World War II, he was a Depression-era kid. He came from that ethos of you support your country and you support other people because that’s what you learned. Hank is an exceptionally intelligent man. When he went from World War II to Korea to Vietnam, he rose in the ranks of leadership. He went from a punk lieutenant, so to speak, to being a colonel in the Air Force, witnessing changes in politics, changes in world scope, yet he never broke his loyalty.”

ADE: Even during the Vietnam War?

Mollison: It was clear to me that he felt our time in Vietnam was a waste, but he was also clear to me that no Americans wasted their effort there. He wanted me to know that. He said you can talk about all the bad stuff that went on there, but the one thing you can’t do is you can’t disparage the American soldier’s loyalty, because if you do that, you’re questioning somebody’s soul.

ADE: The number of combat missions he flew, where does that rank among American pilots?

Mollison: I would guess he’s in the top five, but it’s the breadth of his service. He flew fighters. He flew observation planes. He did a combat parachute jump. He flew as an observer on Army helicopters that were going in and out of air bases. That’s exceptional. That’s where you say, ‘Wow, this guy really did get in the thick of things.’

ADE: From your time interviewing him, is there one story that stands out and shows you what kind of person he was?

Mollison: When he was describing the Vietnam War, and the futility of it and bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, there was so much effort and so much risk of life and equipment to get a nominal result. He wanted to let me know he didn’t kill any elephants. Elephants were used as pack animals on the Ho Chi Min trail. He said, ‘In war, there is no innocence, but there’s something in me that I just couldn’t kill an elephant.’ As a warrior, he appreciated innocence and did his best to protect it. I’ve learned that most of these guys are some of the most conscientious, caring, compassionate people you will ever meet, but they understand the words duty, honor and country to a level that the rest of us don’t get. And among the greatest is Hank.

The Fortune-Keough Funeral Home in Saranac Lake is handling funeral arrangements for Snow. There will be no calling hours, but a memorial service is tentatively set to be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, at the First United Methodist Church in Saranac Lake.

Excerpt from ‘666 The Devil’s Number — The Amazing Service of Col. Hank Snow,’ by John Mollison:

‘Quantitatively, Hank experienced 666 combat missions and sorites, over three wars, accumulating over 1,200 hours of combat flight out of a lifetime of over 14,000 hours of flying. But quantitatively, his numbers were the tough ones. Low, laden and aimed at the hard earth; he strafed trains in China, bombed convoys in Korea and flew low enough to lock eyes with the Viet Cong in Vietnam. He was shot down, shot up and certainly shot back. Hank hit his numbers the hard way.

‘Simply put, Hank Snow is a soldier of the kind the world will never see again.’

Free download of Col. Hank Snow biography available online:

In recognition of Veterans Day and the passing of Col. Hank Snow, writer John Mollison is offering a free download of his biography of Snow, titled “666 The Devil’s Number — The Amazing Service of Col. Hank Snow,” at https://www.dropbox.com/s/v0inwe60hodrgn7/TheDevilsNumber.pdf?dl=0


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