By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
When 19-year-old Homer Cole returned to Joplin's Union Station in November 1945, he was a markedly different man than when he left 10 months earlier.
Four months out of high school he had been drafted, then was shot down over Germany while serving as a tail gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress. He brought home his dog tag, a silk neck scarf made of a scrap of parachute and the desire to see his sweetheart, Evelyn.
But underneath the surface, the desire to continue to serve his country never really went away. Now 87, he has been recognized in recent years for achievements that make him believe that perhaps he did.
Air Force bound
Cole was raised in Carthage. In 1939, he moved to Pittsburg as a ninth grader; a girl named Evelyn lived a few blocks away and was in the seventh grade. They were both very athletic, and during his senior year they began dating.
He graduated in May 1943, just about the time Winston Churchill addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, praising the partnership of the Allies as World War II heated up.
Cole began a three-month semester at Pittsburg State University in a naval college training program known as V-7. Out-of-towners slept on cots in a gymnasium where the Overman Student Center is located today, Cole recalled. The day he turned 18 -- Sept. 25, 1943 -- he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force.
From Pittsburg he went to training schools in navigation and gunnery techniques, traveling to Leavenworth, then Amarillo, the University of Montana, Las Vegas, El Paso and finally Nebraska.
"It became a pretty big world for a kid who had only gone with his dad to St. Louis to see Pepper Martin and Don Gutteridge play for the Cardinals," he said.
In January 1945, his 9-man crew left for Bangor, Maine, bound for England, in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Based on an airfield in Suffolk, England, his crew was part of the larger Allied effort that flew bombing missions across the English Channel.
"For each mission, there were 45 planes in a group; four groups, each staggered by height. All together you're talking 180 planes, each dropping 20 200-pound bombs," he said. "At 5 a.m. we'd load the plane, and then it took us two hours to get into formation with other groups over the English Channel. When we got to enemy lines, B-24s joined us."
But a mission on April 10 to Brandenburg, Germany, lasted significantly longer than the other 19 he would fly during the war.
"We got shot up," Cole said. "We lost two engines, and we were flying at an angle. The pilot was laying on the floor and the co-pilot called me to the pilot's seat. I worked the trim tab to make it fly level."
Things got worse.
"We threw our guns overboard to lighten the plane, and then he said ÔYou gotta drop that ball turret, too,'" Cole said. "It weighed 1,800 pounds. There were 16 double bolts on it, so I took a .50-caliber gun barrel and -- I don't think I could do this now -- I hit them and hit them and they finally broke off.
"Oil started coming in from the engines. I thought we were done. We flew two and a half hours into neutral Brussels, Belgium. I started shooting flares along the way for escorts, but no one responded.
"My co-pilot told me that as soon as the wheels hit, to put my parachute out to try to slow us down. I did, and it about took my head off. When we got out, I kissed the ground."
A few of his crew members, including his pilot and radio operator, were severely injured. Cole considers himself lucky:
"I took just a bit of flak to my helmet, which nicked my skull and was bleeding," he said. "But that was it."
He still has that flak helmet with the hole in it. But Cole is all that remains of his crew. The co-pilot, with whom he kept in regular contact, died on Thanksgiving 2012.
Also making it home were his three older brothers, two of whom served in the Air Force and one of whom served in the Navy.
Cole married Evelyn on Thanksgiving 1946, and they began a lifetime of bowling, playing, coaching basketball and baseball and encouraging youth athletics.
While attending PSU after his service, he set a school record for career basketball games played (110). It stood for 50 years, for which he was inducted into the PSU Hall of Fame last September.
In 1954, he was hired as director of Joplin Parks & Recreation, which he did until 1960 when he and Evelyn had the chance to manage the new Bowl-a-Rama at Seventh Street and Range Line Road. They also managed lanes in Oklahoma before returning to Pittsburg in 1965 and purchasing Holiday Lanes Bowling Alley.
Parents to two daughters and a son who still live in the area, they began building a business that still thrives -- catering especially to the youth leagues and school visits that Cole said were so important to him.
They sold the business in 1984, but Cole still yearned to serve his community in some way. He campaigned for a seat on the city commission and was elected in 1987. During his tenure as mayor the next year, he spearheaded a grassroots effort to build a community center that would cater especially to seniors.
"The city had the chance for a grant, and they told me I had nine days to raise $33,000 in matching funds," Cole said.
He came close -- $29,800 -- and now that center bears his name.
A 48-year member of the Elks Lodge 412, he also began sensing the importance of helping high-school students get a first-hand view of city and county government. He began inviting students to City Hall, which evolved into a county-wide Elks Student Government Day.
Last Wednesday, the event drew more than 100 seniors from all six Crawford County high schools.
"It's a day of real value, to show young people how our government works," he said. "I love it for kids, because they get to know a little bit more what's going on in the world."
Cole is now a widower -- Evelyn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010 and died on Sept. 15 that year -- but he stays active with the Elks, in several other civic organizations and as a fan of athletics at PSU.
Highest of honors
Homer Cole earned several awards for his military service. Among them are the Purple Heart, a World War II Victory Medal and an Air Combat Medal.