Local Carolina WWII Hero Entrusts Sullenberger Aviation Museum with his Oral History and WWII Artifacts, Cites Archive Professionalism as Reason for Donation
Growing up as a kid in the ‘30s in Pageland, S.C., Thomas Funderburk built model airplanes out of balsawood, fabric and stretch paper, like most kids did. When the planes got old and beat up from the rubber band trying to turn the prop, the boys would climb up on the roof, light them on fire, and throw them over the house playing war. What they didn’t know then was that soon they would be “playing at war” for real.
Funderburk, who was called “Pinky” for his bright red hair, joined the Air Force in June 1943, earning his wings in August 1944. He flew B-17 bombers and was involved in some of the most intense air raids towards the end of World War II. Once the Germans put the fighter jet Me-262 into service, his job got a lot harder. The new German fighters were almost twice as fast as the American P-51s that escorted the bombers on their flights over Europe.
“When the 262s hit, they were so fast,” Funderburk said in a 2023 interview with Sullenberger Aviation Museum’s Collections team. “So that was a pretty scary time, because we did not know what to expect.”
Funderburk made it through the war achieving the Air Force rank of Major and receiving the French Legion of Honor – the highest order of merit bestowed by the government of France, for his heroic duties and selfless service on a series of missions in WWII’s European theater. On the last of these missions, he flew deep into enemy territory over Horsching, Austria, and rescued 31 French prisoners of war who had recently been liberated from a POW camp. To get them home, his crew had to reconfigure their B-17 bomber for passengers so they could return the French troops to Paris.
After the war he graduated from Wake Forest University, and then became a salesman for the same company where his father worked. Most of his career was in sales, management, and ownership of companies. He continued to fly and flew a number of different small general aviation aircraft (Piper Comanche, Twin Comanche, and Bonanza B-35), mainly for business trips.
“I can remember flying out of the Charlotte Municipal Airport (in the 1950s) which was a tiny little building,” Funderburk said. “We flew the DC-3s, of course, because that’s all the airline had!”
Now 98-years-old, Major Thomas “Pinky” Funderburk resides in a senior living facility in Rock Hill, SC, and although he still drives, he doesn’t fly much anymore with his buddies at the Rock Hill EAA Chapter 961.
“Today it’s almost scary to go to the airport, for me,” says Funderburk. “To drive to the airport, to handle the luggage and the tickets. The immensity of it all.”
And about his service to his country, he says, “So I was just one little pilot, OK? The cook in the kitchen was just as important as me. And the guys that loaded the bombs. Our ground crew worked all night in any kind of weather with no cover rebuilding engines and patching up holes. It was just an immense effort from a lot of people.”
The Pinky Funderburk Collection includes an oral history, his Eisenhower jacket, training manuals from his time as an aviation cadet, photographs from his military career, and all the letters he wrote to and from home during the War. Pinky’s Eisenhower jacket, tailor made for him in London for 200 pounds, will be on display and his oral history can be heard in the Main Gallery’s Aviation Society exhibition, and the rest will be in our Archives for researchers to access.
For more information about our archives and donation policies or to search our collection, please follow this link: https://www.sullenbergeraviation.org/museum-collections/.
SAM Collections Specialist Rachel McManimen worked with Funderburk to donate and preserve his artifacts and contributed to this story.