There is little doubt that Montauk is a place that abounds with interesting people who have led unusual lives. That is the case with 87-year-old Don Foley and his wife Regina.
Don, a widower, and Regina, a divorced mother of two adult daughters, met at the Montauk Village Association’s Montauk Greenery Scenery event at Montauk Downs in 1988. “What really brought us together,” said Regina, “was a love of Don’s Goldwing motorcycle. He invited me to go to lunch in Sag Harbor on the motorcycle.”
She was impressed with his sense of responsibility, for though he invited her to have a glass of wine at lunch, he refused it for himself because “he was driving. I thought that was pretty neat,” she continued, her speech bearing a faint trace of German, Regina having arrived in this country in 1951 at the age of 14.
“When he took me home [to East Hampton] I didn’t think I could get off the motorcycle, I was so sore,” Regina laughed. Since then, the adventurous couple, married almost 17 years ago, have driven by motorcycle to Florida twice. Following an accident a few years ago, Don gave up the bike.
We befriended Regina at the town-sponsored senior exercise program at the Playhouse Center some time ago. She shared the news of a forthcoming trip to Cincinnati with Don, a World War II fighter pilot, to attend an annual meeting of the 82nd Fighter Group Association, formed in 1983. Don, a former president of the group, has been attending the meetings since 1986.
Chatting at their adobe-style home in the Star Top Estates section, Don, with a bit of prodding from Regina, told his story. Born on Staten Island, he joined the Air National Guard as a private in 1940 following his high school graduation, just before the war. A few months later, there was a call. The state National Guard had been federalized.
“We wound up in Alabama for training as the 27th regiment of the Air National Guard,” he said. He was trained as an aerial gunner. After the Pearl Harbor attack 13 months later, he was trained as a pilot. “At that time,” he said, “the air guards were governed by West Point, and because I wasn’t a college graduate, it was expected that I would be a staff sergeant pilot. I went as an aviation cadet, and a little before my graduation, they changed the rules and I became a 2nd lieutenant fighter pilot. I flew the famous Lockheed Lightning P-38. It was the only twin-engine fighter plane the country had at that time.” At that point. Don showed us a photograph of the plane.
Asked about any residual feelings about the Germans which could have carried over when he first met Regina, he responded, “Not at all. I don’t even have regrets about what I had to do in combat, as you and the enemy pilot knew that only one of you was coming home.”
Had Regina experienced discomfort as a youngster following her immigration here? She replied that she had experienced some prejudice toward her in high school. “Some people didn’t want anything to do with me because I was German, but I lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood and somehow it worked out fine, because my grandmother was Jewish.” Her grandmother had married a Christian and in the 1930s, just before the war started, they were allowed leave the country because she was born in England. She had relatives in the United States and, with Regina’s grandfather, managed to come here.
Her story depicts the convoluted agonies of those times, as Regina related that her father had lost all knowledge of where his mother went because he was drafted into the [German] air force. But the Germans did not know he was half Jewish, except, apparently, one of them: “He was very lucky because a superior officer told my father, ‘Irvin, I know what’s going on and you’d better get out of here,’” Regina said.
Her father, a musician, fled. After the war her parents and her paternal grandparents connected through the Red Cross. In 1949, her parents emigrated to the states. “But I couldn’t come, because of the quota system for immigrants,” Regina said. As a result, she lived in Munich with an aunt. “Don and I have a lot in common,” said Regina, including the fact that his mother was of German descent.
Don, one of a group of 12, became a replacement pilot, landing first in Casablanca and working his way across Sicily trying to find the 82nd fighter group. “We couldn’t find them, as they were moving fast from North Africa to Sicily, where they were fighting the battle of Salerno. He eventually found his group in Lacce, Italy. The action moved north to Foggia. He flew combat in those areas for 10 months. Flying 50 combat missions, starting in October 1943, Don was relieved from active service as a captain in August 1944. He stayed in the Air Force Reserve for some 25 years and was discharged from that service as a lieutenant colonel.
For a man whose chief educational experience was through his wartime training, Don was fortunate to have developed a new civilian career in airport management. In 1947, he answered an ad for staff with airport experience for Newark Airport, which was being taken over by the Port Authority. He went on to become assistant manager of LaGuardia Airport for nine years and afterward worked for New York International Airport [JFK], for five years and opened five of the seven present terminal buildings. He returned to LaGuardia to open a new terminal building there.
Later Don was asked by the International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations air arm, to manage the developing airport in Nairobi. His mission was to make sure the airport would meet international standards. This was followed by similar stints in Cairo, Egypt, Amman in Jordan, and briefly in Perth, Australia, which he particularly enjoyed as it was the time of the America’s Cup race. For another three years, Don was employed by the Swedish government. That could stand alone as another fascinating story.
Of course, flying was the means that brought Don—a rated flight instructor—to live in Montauk, after being a guest of Dr. Leon Star of Startop Ranch, who had asked him for flight instruction. Dr. Lou Abelson, Dr. Star’s partner, became his next student, along with others.
The rest is history for this interesting, compatible couple who share a great deal of pride in one another and enjoyment in the life Montauk offers.