First of three stories about local veterans during Memorial Day Weekend:
I first met Bob Pinkowski right after he stormed down to the U.S. Air Force recruiting office after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He was ready to re-enlist. He was ready to serve his country again. He was ready to climb back into the cockpit of a a fighter plane.
“I was dead serious,” said the South Bend native. “I wanted to get those guys who killed all those innocent people.”
He told me this with tears in his eyes. He had tears in his eyes, too, when the recruiters respectfully declined his offer.
He figured they probably would, though. Bob Pinkowski, after all, was 82 years old at the time. “I felt like I wanted to do something.”
He had already done enough for his country during World War II as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He flew 124 missions in Europe, mainly over Italy, and was shot down twice.
“I could have gone home after being shot down, but I’m pretty ornery,” he told me. “And my commanding officer — who reminded me a lot of Gregory Peck in ‘Twelve O’Clock High’ — said it was just a waste of paper by filling out any forms to send me stateside. He knew I wasn’t in any mood to leave.”
When Bob tried to re-enlist after 9/11, he hadn’t flown a plane in 15 years. He understood why the Air Force passed on his offer, but he still figured he could do the job.
“I would be over there (in the Middle East) in a minute,” he continued. “Because I’m 82, I know some people might not think I was serious. But I was.”
When Bob came home after World War II, he worked as a printer and then as an insurance agent. He helped his wife Rita raise their three children, served his church and flew the American flag. Yeah, he was a member of the Greatest Generation and proud of it.
He was a character — all 5-foot-6 of him. He was part Irish, part Polish and part Blackfoot. While growing up, he would hang out at the South Bend Airport, washing planes and cleaning hangars for free rides and lessons.
During the war, he flew and fought with fervor in his P47 Thunderbolt as part of the 57th Fighter Group.
On one early-morning mission, Bob strapped on his helmet and pulled his flight jacket over his pajamas. “And wouldn’t you know that was the time I was shot down,” he recalled. “I bellied in behind enemy lines and decided I wasn’t going to be taken prisoner. So I sat on a rock with my 45 (firearm) drawn waiting for the Germans.”
Fortunately, one of our tanks found him first.
“They gave me a ride until we ran into a mule team taking supplies over the Apennine Mountains,” Bob said. “When the sergeant realized I was in my pajamas, he gave me the uniform off a dead British soldier.”
Just as well.
“The sergeant said it was going to be colder than bloody blue hell and he was right. I learned to kick the legs out from under a mule at night and then crawl up by its belly to stay warm.”
After five days, he made it back to his unit. A few months later, he was shot down again. ”But that time, I was able to put it down on our side of the lines.”
But he had hit his head on the gunsight. “I didn’t say anything at the time because I didn’t want to be grounded,” he admitted. “When I got older, though, and had a few seizures, an MRI showed a little line down my skull that probably occurred when I crashed.”
How could you not love a guy like him. After I met Bob in 2001, I would often mention him in speeches I would give as the South Bend Tribune human-interest columnist.
After one such talk at Little Flower Church in February of 2007, a man came up to me and said, “You know, we had Bob Pinkowski’s funeral here earlier this morning.”
Wow! I was deeply humbled and saddened. I just hoped my words did him justice and that maybe he was up in heaven giving me a nod.
So I continued to tell Bob’s story. When I was a tour host for Edgerton Travel, I would, at some point, stand at the front of the bus and tell them about Bob Pinkowski — his World War II feats … his attempt to fight the 9/11 terrorists at age 82 … and and how I sang his praises at Little Flower without knowing his funeral had been there only hours before.
On one occasion, we had a few minutes before we arrived at our hotel in Moab, Utah. So I told my fellow travelers about Bob. When we disembarked, a few of us headed to the hotel’s restaurant to get something to drink.
“Where you from?” the female bartender asked.
“South Bend, Indiana,” I said.
“Really,” she said. “I wonder if you ever knew my former father-in-law. He was a character, Bob Pinkowski.”