The Greatest Generation:
90-year-old veteran a Black Mountain Hero
Published in Black Mountain News, February 20, 2014
Howard Pinner, Jr., who celebrated his ninetieth birthday in January, lives a peaceful family life in Black Mountain, yet is one of America’s war heroes, a much-decorated veteran of World War II.
A tall, handsome, and quiet-spoken man, Howard and his wife, Jo, have lived on a tranquil, green-lawned Black Mountain street for more than thirty years, raising two sons and two daughters, and enjoying the growth of their family with seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
You might not guess from meeting Howard that he was a courageous, determined bomber pilot who, at age 19, flew 26 perilous missions over Germany from 1943 - 1945.
He was an 18-year-old student at Mars Hill College when he decided to become a pilot.
“I’d wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid, hooked on the adventures of ‘Tailspin Tommy’ and ‘Smilin’ Jack’ in the comic strips,” he said. “I was in love with the idea of flying, and once I was old enough, I enlisted in the United States Army Air Force, on October 22, 1943.”
Pinner recalls the many phases of his pilot training. On February 24, 1944, he reported for Army basic training in Miami Beach, Fla.
Earlier in February of that year, the Army’s Eighth Air Force was activated as a bomber command unit, under which Howard would come to serve after completing his pilot training on many U.S. Army bases around the country. Eventually, he was assigned to Maxwell Field, Alabama; then on to Lafayette, La.; to Walnut Ridge and Blythe Field, Ark., where he became a commissioned officer. At Drew Field, Tampa, Fla., Howard was assigned to the 10-member crew with whom he would serve for the remainder of his tour.
His rigorous pilot training included the Fairchild PT-23 trainer; Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer; and the B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber.
The crew was as close as brothers, having spent months living and training together. Barely out of their teens, the young men had already developed the maturity and determined attitude to fiercely protect each other.
“When you’re 19, you don’t think of dying, only competing, and winning,” Pinner, the youngest of his crew, said. “And beating the enemy.”
The crew’s home base was at Nuthampstead, formerly used by England’s Royal Air Force. Howard’s unit was known as the 398th Bombardment Group (Triangle-W). The group consisted of four units of thirty-six planes each.
“We were assigned to three or five a.m. briefings,” Howard said. “It took an hour for each unit of 36 planes to assemble into V-formation. Imagine the impact of seven units – more than a thousand planes – flying one after another over Berlin and other parts of Germany and occupied Europe to undermine the pinnings of the German war machine.”
The offensive air forces of the USAAF and the RAF came to be classified as strategic or tactical. Strategic maneuvers comprised attacks beyond the enemy’s front-line forces, to destroy production and supply sites. Tactical maneuvers were designed to cover and support the men on the ground in fighting campaigns.
“Our missions were strategic,” Howard said. “I flew 26 missions as part of the invasion of Continental Europe from Britain. We carried out bombing raids on Berlin factories, Munich warehouses, Kiel shipping facilities, oil refineries, marshalling yards, and aircraft plants in other cities.”
The 398th Bombardment Group was part of the Invasion of Normandy, which Tom Brokaw later memorialized. They attacked coastal defenses and enemy troops.
From Nuthampstead, the USAAF group flew 195 combat missions between 1943-1945. According to USAAF records, it was the largest company of deployed combat Army Air Forces in numbers of aircraft, personnel, and equipment during the war.
Pinner recalled his crew would fly three days in a row in clear weather, bombing targets from 25,000 to 35,000 feet, where they were safe from ground fire and flack.
On one mission, his plane caught fire, when a plane above his in the formation blew up.
“My only option was to ditch the plane in the North Sea,” he said. “Our aircraft broke in two. We put on our Mae Wests before the plane went under water. Luckily, we were able to salvage our emergency radio and life raft. Not so lucky, we lost three men.”
Pinner said the radio engineer hooked up the radio and cranked out an SOS. The RAF in a Flying Dutchman found them and dropped parachutes, a boat, and ropes in all directions so the men could hoist themselves onto the life boat.
“It was a cold eight hours in the North Sea,” he said.
On another mission, which proved to be his last, Howard and crew were ordered to bomb an ordnance plant 20 miles from Berlin. But they were pursued and the B-17 badly damaged.
“The plane had 200 gunfire holes, only two functioning engines left, and an emptied gas tank,” Howard said. “I followed a railroad line into Kutno, Poland. The area looked deserted, but we knew there was a Russian base nearby.”
When Howard finally spotted a place he felt was safe to land, he guided the plane down. Suddenly, people appeared from everywhere, surrounding the plane.
“Although I knew a little German, I had been advised during training not to speak the language if ever caught,” he said. “Pilots who spoke German were known to have been shot at sight by those aligned with the Allies. Lucky for me, I greeted the welcoming committee in English!”
It took more than a month for Howard and his crew to leave Poland and reach safe haven, to return home. They were smuggled through Russia, Iran, Egypt, Italy, France, and finally to England.
“We arrived home – our real home in the U.S. - on V-E Day, aboard the Ile de France,” Howard added.
Some months later, Howard returned to school, enrolling at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, and met and married Jo Mathis, his wife of 60 years.
For many years, Howard was a chemical textile colorist and plant manager for some of the nation’s largest textile manufacturers and dye plants, including Graniteville, Greenwood Mills, and Reeves Brothers. When the last plant in Old Fort closed in 1983, he and Jo decided to stay on [in Black Mountain], loving their home, the town, and the place where their family had blossomed and grown.
“I loved flying and have no regrets about my war experience, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Today, Pinner points to the test pilots of stealth planes as the real heroes. “And those men re-upping for their fifth, sixth, and tenth missions on the ground and in the air. Like them, we fought to protect our brothers on either side of us. And that’s what American soldiers do: protect and serve our families.”
Tuesday, February 4, 2014