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."