After scoring high marks on an aptitude test at Fort Niagara's induction center in Youngstown, Edward M. Kolek said he was talked into joining the Army's Aviation Cadet Corps.
He breezed through pilot training and went on to pilot commander school. Unlike a number of fellow cadets, he said, his easygoing approach helped him. No matter where he landed, he told himself he'd be OK.
"So many of the young guys who wanted to fly real bad were worried about washing out," Kolek says. "I didn't worry because I knew if I did, I could work as a mechanic on the planes. I'd taken shop courses in high school."
Kolek ended up flying 47 missions over southern and southeastern Europe from his base in Italy, commanding a B-24 bomber.
During many of those missions, he often piloted the lead plane in the formation.
"If it was a squadron mission, there would be maybe 28 to 30 planes following me, and if it was a group mission, roughly 100 or so bombers,"
Kolek says. "It was a big responsibility. You had to have smooth flying skills because people flew off your wing. You couldn't be erratic."
Entering the bombing run, he explains, it was critical to fly steady in order for "the bombardier to have a better chance to hit the target."
The lead bombardier, he says, set the pace for the bombardiers in the other planes.
"We had to have the bombs concentrated on a small area in the target in order to eliminate collateral damage and do maximum damage," he says.
It was all highly coordinated, but don't think for one minute that these bombing runs at 18,000 to 26,000 feet above enemy territory always went off like clockwork.
Take, for instance, Kolek's mission above the heavily protected Ploesti oil fields in Romania, where the Germans got about one-third of their oil supply.
"Just before the start of the bombing run," Kolek says, "our whole group was flying on a collision course with another group, and we were ordered to make a 360-degree turn over Bucharest, and I got hit with anti-aircraft fire in my No. 1 engine.
"I had to leave the formation because I could not maintain position. I went on the bombing run alone and got hit again in another engine. Our right landing gear was also shot up."
The unmistakable smell of gasoline started filling the plane, and the crew responded by pumping gas from a punctured tank to an undamaged tank.
"You could smell the gasoline real bad," Kolek says. "To make matters worse, we lost our oxygen and radio contact, and flight controls were damaged. Our navigator took us back through valleys. We avoided the mountains because we were losing altitude the whole time."
Kolek managed to limp back to Grottaglie Airfield in southern Italy, where he confronted the problem of landing with two of the four engines out and no right landing gear.
"It was a crash-landing, but I think it was one of the best landings I ever made in my life," he says. "I had to keep the right wing as high as I could for as long as I could.
"There's a tendency for the wing to dip down, dig in the ground and cartwheel. I avoided the cartwheel, which is the end for everybody."
Gen. Nathan F. Twining, commander of the 15th Air Force, witnessed the crash-landing from the side of the runway.
"His staff was with him, and a colonel came up to me and said, 'Job well done,' " he recalls.
All told, the plane had 240 flak holes, some small, some big, in addition to a nearly demolished undercarriage.
And consider this: It was one of Kolek's first missions.
"I was concerned about getting hit like anyone else, but I never had a fear," he says. "I'd come back from a mission and look forward to the next mission. I was prepared for the worst scenario.
"If I didn't get shot down, it was a good mission, and it made me look forward to the next mission. It was like going for a ride on a Ferris wheel. Mental preparation is the key."
Soon after the war, while assigned to a base in Memphis, Tenn., Kolek met his wife-to-be on a blind date. He married Christine Bailey on April 25, 1946, his 24th birthday, in the base chapel.
When he left the service, he could have worked as a commercial pilot but ruled it out when told he would have to be a co-pilot for about 10 years before advancing.
"No way would I take the second seat," he said.
He went to Cornell University and earned an agricultural certificate, hoping to become an agriculture engineering consultant but instead landed in a steel mill. He worked his way up to manager of labor relations at what was then Lockport's Simonds Saw and Steel, which later became Guterl Specialty Steel.
Kolek lives on a Town of Lockport farm, which he purchased in 1951, and where his son, Mark Kolek, is developing part of the 100 acres into a horse farm these days.
Edward M. Kolek, 89
Hometown: DuBois, Pa.
Residence: Town of Lockport
Branch: Army Air Forces
Rank: Lieutenant colonel, Air Force Reserve
War zones: Europe, Mediterranean
Years of service: 1943-47; continued as a reservist until 1982
Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters, European Battle Ribbon with nine battle stars
Specialty: Pilot/flight commander