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WWII veteran shares tail gunner story with Meadowlark Elementary students

Joplin Globe - 1/11/2019

Jan. 11--PITTSBURG, Kan. -- Homer Cole, a 93-year-old World War II veteran from Pittsburg, visited the youngsters at Meadowlark Elementary on Thursday to share his experience as a tail gunner during the war and to also spread a message of hope to the upcoming generation.

"You set a goal, and as long as you make up your mind, you can get to that goal, but you have to stay with it and really go after it," Cole said to the children. "All I can tell you is how much we appreciate all of you because you're the leaders of tomorrow for us."

Hundreds of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students gathered around to listen to Cole's stories as he reflected on his time as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress from 1943 to 1945. Cole graduated from Pittsburg High School in May 1943 and received his military draft notice on his 18th birthday in September while he was attending college at Pittsburg State University.

The veteran sat at a table in front of the children with a variety of war memorabilia that included a shadow box filled with military medals and a black and white picture of a younger Cole in uniform. Also on display was a motorized B-17 alarm clock sporting propellers of the plane that moved at the push of a button and sound effects emitted from a mini speaker.

The Carthage native flew alongside a crew of eight young men, all of whom were either 18 or 21 years old. Cole said during his two years in the military, he completed 19 missions, but one particular mission stood out in his mind.

On April 10, 1945, while on a mission to Brandenburg, Germany, their plane was shot down as they were flying over the English Channel. The crew was severely injured, and the veteran told the students he didn't think he would survive.

"My crew got hit with flak from the ground, and 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," Cole said. "My engineer, the flak went through his stomach, and my radio man, it took the top of his head off. It took a nick out of my skull."

As the bomber plane was struggling to stay aloft, Cole said, crew members who were able dropped the ball turret and everything else to keep from weighing it down.

"We were flying just 900 feet above ground after that, and we headed for Brussels, Belgium," Cole said. "My co-pilot had me sit up in the front of the pilot's seat to have my foot on the trim tab to level the plane."

Cole said the pilot told him when the plane's front wheels hit the ground to throw his parachute out of the back door to help stop the aircraft. While doing so, he had a very close call with the parachute cord that nearly took him with it. Luckily, the entire crew escaped death that day. Today, Cole is the only surviving crew member after the pilot died about two years ago.

"I wanted you to know how lucky I feel and how I appreciate coming down here," Cole told the students.

For his service in the military, Cole earned an Air Combat Medal, Purple Heart, WWII Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal, European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal, and an Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters.

Jason Owens, 9, a fourth-grader at Meadowlark, said he enjoyed hearing Cole speak and that veterans are good role models.

"He's been through a lot, and it's a pretty big honor because you can learn from him," Owens said.

Kenndra Villa, 10, also a fourth-grader at Meadowlark, said Cole taught them to reach for their goals and never give up. School librarian Carrie Lance coordinated the event for the children.

"There's not very many WWII vets still living," Lance said. "These people were put in very dangerous situations and did what they were told to help create freedom for us. I really focus on respect, and I want our kids to respect the people who have fought for us to be able to be here and to be free."

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