MINT HILL – What started as a business relationship between a real estate agent and a client looking to sell his house, eventually turned into a friendship based on a shared interest in history and aviation.
It didn’t matter the two friends are more than 30 years apart.
Ed Funderburk, 60, has been selling real estate in Mecklenburg and Union counties for 32 years. Paul Norman, 94, had already moved to a new house on Grove Hall Avenue in Mint Hill, but he hadn’t sold his previous home. He strung Funderburk along for about a year while he debated whether to sell the house, rent it out or let his family decide what to do.
One day, Norman called Funderburk and asked him to come by his office. He owns the Paul Norman Company, a sheet metal fabrication shop near the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and has reported for work every day until this past year. His daughter, Susan, now runs the business.
As soon as Funderburk walked into Norman’s office, he noticed his aviation and World War II memorabilia.
“I threw my paperwork on the chair beside me and I said, ‘Hell, let’s talk about planes,’” Funderburk said.
Funderburk had wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Navy and even passed the entrance exam after graduating college. But after talking with fighter pilots that came out of Vietnam, he decided at the last minute not to go in due to the politics. Norman was a Navy flight captain (crew chief) on naval fighters in WWII. It was the perfect match.
“I’ve always had great respect for those who served, regardless of which conflict,” Funderburk said.
The two talked for hours about Norman’s time in the Navy. He was 18 years old and living in Union Grove, N.C., when he was drafted for WWII. He saw joining the service as an educational experience and a change of pace from life on a farm.
“A young man can learn very fast in whatever interest they put you in, and I was interested in airplanes,” Norman said. “It was an experience to an old country boy.”
When the war began in 1939, the United States was just coming out of The Great Depression. Good paying jobs were still hard to come by and new opportunities were scarce, Norman said.
“There was not a lot to do, so joining the service was a step up actually,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for me as well as helping the country and I felt good about that.”
Norman had wanted to be a pilot, but missed the deadline to apply. As a crew chief, he prepped the planes before flight, checked the instruments and controls, diagnosed problems and trained repairmen. He had to be an expert on every aspect of the planes he worked on, which included the Grumman F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat.
The F4F Wildcat was an American carrier-based fighter aircraft that began service with both the U.S. Navy and British Royal Navy in 1940. With a top speed of 318 mph, the Wildcat was the only effective fighter available to the U.S. during the early part of WWII, but it wasn’t as quick or maneuverable as Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
The F4F Wildcat was eventually replaced with the faster F6F Hellcat, which was credited with destroying more than 5,000 enemy aircraft while in service. The Hellcat could compete with the Zero and was the U.S. Navy’s dominant fighter in the second half of the Pacific War.
Funderburk eventually sold Norman’s house, but their relationship didn’t end there. He felt compelled to do something special for Norman, so over a period of almost two years, he built replicas of the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat. He recently gifted Norman the planes as a thank you, and Norman says they’re very good.
The models are extremely detailed from the color schemes to wear from the pilot walking along the wings to the marks from the pilot’s feet rubbing on the pedals. Funderburk does a lot of research for every model he builds to make them as realistic as possible.
“If you shrunk yourself down to about an inch tall, climbed inside and strapped the seatbelts on, you could take off in this thing,” he said. “That’s how detailed these things are.”
Norman gets nostalgic whenever he looks at the models Funderburk made. He said it brings him back to both a critical time in his life and a crucial point in history for the country. He said WWII was “cruel” from all sides but it had to be done, and he lost a lot of friends.
“It was you or him,” Norman said. “War…what it means is I’m going to kill you or be killed.”
Funderburk believes it’s important to honor all of our veterans – whether they were on the front lines of combat or behind the scenes making sure the planes, tanks, ships and other machinery were in good shape.
“The WWII guys are literally the greatest generation. These guys were 19 and 20 years old and some even lied about their age so they could fight in the war,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for what they did and the sacrifices they made, we wouldn’t be here. It’s just what we owe them and they’re disappearing rapidly because they’re dying off. It’s just my way of saying thanks.”
When it comes to recognition, it is no surprise Norman shies away from the limelight. He appreciates the time Funderburk spent on the models, but he’s humble.
“I don’t feel like we did anything special. We did our duty at the time we were needed,” Norman said. “I think I did something honorable, yes, but not heroic. I honored the flag.”