PITTSBURG — On Thursday, Meadowlark Elementary students sat quietly in rows as they listened to World War II veteran Homer Cole share his story of survival after his B-17 was shot down over Germany.
Cole, a 1943 Pittsburg High School Alumnus, had 244 students in his graduating class.
“Eighty never finished high school because the day they turned 18 they were drafted into the service,” Cole said.
September of that year he turned 18 and received his notice. He went into the U.S Army Air Corp.
“I went in and I wanted to be a pilot but they made me a navigator because his math was ‘too good,’” Cole said.
Eventually Cole ended up a gunner and became a tail gunner because of his long legs, he said.
During the presentation, he turned on a model plane and the children listened to the plane which made gun noises and they watched the propellers spin.
Cole explained to the students where he and his crew sat.
Days he went on missions were quite early, he told the children. Everyone was awakened at 3 a.m. and that’s when the crew was told when, where and even how high they were going to fly.
“People don’t realize you’re going to have 180 planes up there at one time,” Cole said. “There are 45 in four different groups, and each one a thousand feet or higher than the other.”
They lost three to five planes every mission, Cole said.
Cole’s crew was pretty lucky despite being hit with flak from the ground, he said.
“We were very lucky on what happened that day because we lost both engines on the left side and my pilot lost his left leg; my engineer, the flak went through his stomach; and my radio man, it took the top of his head off; mine, it took a nic out of my skull,” he said.
After being hit with flak they headed towards Belgium. Cole was instructed to hook his parachute to the rear axle of the plane and throw it out.
Cole, with help from Lance, displayed both the helmet that he wore and a scarf, which was made out of his parachute by by an English woman after the flak event. He was stationed 72 miles north of London at the time.
Along with the plane Cole brought war memorabilia which the children had the opportunity to see up close as they went back to class. They also had an opportunity to ask Cole questions.
Cole is the very last of his crew as of two years ago.
“There’s not too many WWII vets out there,” Meadowlark Librarian Carrie Lance said. “He has a pretty cool story so this is a pretty big honor to get to hear him speak.”
Lance’s husband’s grandfather played basketball with Cole. Knowing that Lance works at the elementary school, Cole wanted to share his story with the students, she said.
“I think his story is real interesting,” Lance said. “You don’t get to hear WWII veterans speak very often, so I wanted these kids to have that experience and maybe get some appreciation for why they are able to come to school freely and speak to someone who has fought for our country … I get really passionate about people who have fought for us, respect is a big thing and I want them to understand freedom isn’t always free.”
Fifth grade student Maizey Williams said she was happy that Cole took the time to see everyone out of his “busy day.”
“It’s a big job” Maizey said about being in the military and going to war.
From this experience, Maizey said she has been taught to “honor people like that better.”
Fifth grade student Logan Sanders agreed.
“He came here and spend his time with us,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Logan said now he can say “a World War II person came,” to his school.
Cole encouraged the students to find what they love in life and make it happen.
“I want you to know that you need to find something in life that you love, and that way you don’t have to worry … I wanted to tell you set a goal and as long as you make up your mind you can get to that goal, because you gotta study and really go after it,” Cole said.
“We appreciate all of you because you are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, it’s going to take somebody who is a risk taker.”
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.