Michael Pohorilla, 95, of New Albany flew 35 combat missions over German-held territory as a first lieutenant and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress navigator in World War II.
He was based in Great Britain as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Eighth Air Force. The 10-man crew on his bomber ranged from 18 to 22 years old, “barely out of high school,” he said.
“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. ... Just a few microseconds in combat and you become very, very humble,” he said. “God was my co-pilot, no question about it.”
Pohorilla was born in eastern Pennsylvania and graduated from Girard College, a 12-grade school in Philadelphia that had about 1,600 students when he attended.
“I got a first-class education there,” he said, consisting of college-preparatory classes in the mornings and vocational classes in the afternoons.
The vocational classes covered such topics as carpentry, electrical work and printing.
“The philosophy was, when you left the school, you could earn a living,” he said. “It was a school far ahead of its time.”
A fellow Girard student who was a year behind Pohorilla was Russell Johnson, who also became a bomber crewman. A bombardier and navigator in a B-25 Mitchell bomber, Johnson flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific.
Long after the war, Johnson became famous portraying Professor Roy Hinkley in the TV comedy “Gilligan’s Island.”
“He was a nice guy,” Pohorilla said.
Pohorilla was a 17-year-old listening to a football game on the radio when he learned the Japanese had attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
The New York Giants were playing a Sunday afternoon home game at the Polo Grounds when Pohorilla heard background voices on the radio mentioning an unnamed general and the mayor.
“You knew something was going on,” he said.
An announcer soon told listeners the news that Japan had attacked Hawaii, Pohorilla said, “and that was it.”
His father was a World War I veteran, injured during a poisonous-gas attack in France, and his two brothers served in the Navy in World War II.
At age 18, Pohorilla said, “I saw everybody around me was going” into the military.
Pohorilla wanted to be a pilot, he said.
“Flying was the thing to do back in those days. ... I was interested in flying,” he said.
First came Army basic training in Miami.
“Basic training was tough,” he said.
After training in Florida, he next was posted at several locations in the south.
“The south was a bit of culture shock,” he said, because of a level of segregation he had not seen in Pennsylvania.
“Separate drinking fountains and the like were kind of alien to you growing up and what you were used to,” he said.
Next came the military’s aviation cadet program, designed to produce at least 100,000 pilots a year.
“The future, of course, meant invading Europe. We also had a lot of air crews required for the Pacific area, as well,” Pohorilla said.
The training was patterned after the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and “the discipline was pretty harsh. ... We had to toe the mark until we finally started to get into airplanes and start flying a bit,” he said.
He made his first solo flight at Souther Field near Americus, Georgia, and in May 1944 received orders to ship out for England.
He was based with the 385th Bombardment Group, stationed about 40 miles east of Cambridge. He and seven other men lived in a Quonset hut, a prefabricated structure made of corrugated steel.
It was equipped with a pot-bellied stove, which, he said, “never got us warm in England.”
Using a 30-gallon oil drum, some copper tubing and used motor oil, the men improvised a drip system to feed oil into the stove. After that, “the pot-bellied stove was red hot at times,” he said.
Not long after his arrival in England, the Germans began sending V-1 flying bombs across the channel.
The “buzz bombs,” as they were known, carried 1,000 pounds of explosives powered by a crude jet engine, Pohorilla said.
The V-1 wasn’t very accurate, he said. The Germans’ goal was to “hopefully, knock out something but (mostly) to frighten the population.”
Although buzz bombs hit his base once or twice, he said, the Americans’ morale was unaffected.
“They sounded like a real freight train coming by, real loud,” he said. “As long as you could hear that noise, you knew we were safe. ... When the noise stopped, then it headed for the earth. ... Loud boom afterwards.”
A typical bombing mission started at 5 a.m., Pohorilla said.
While the Royal Air Force bombed cities at night, “we bombed specific targets. Our mission was to destroy the industrial complex, and we did a pretty good number on that,” he said.
The Americans made daylight raids, concentrating on such targets as German railroad yards and Germany’s synthetic-oil industry.
At the time, Pohorilla weighed 135 pounds, he said.
His flying gear included four or five layers of clothing, an armored flak jacket, a heated suit and flight coveralls. After he put it all on, he said, he weighed about 160 pounds.
“I looked like the Michelin Man (and) waddled around,” he said.
Flying at 25,000 feet, he said, was a challenge.
“We were fighting Mother Nature as much as we were fighting the enemy,” he said.
At that altitude, the temperature was 40 degrees below zero, he said.
The crew wore oxygen masks and were told that without the masks, their life expectancy would drop to about two minutes at high altitude.”
Every five minutes, the plane did a crew check. Crewmen responded by saying, “Tail gunner, OK. Waist gunner, OK. Ball turret, OK,” etc., he said.
During one crew check, Pohorilla failed to respond because his oxygen mask had frozen and he passed out.
The bombardier rushed over and turned Pohorilla’s oxygen flow to 100%, and Pohorilla regained consciousness.
Pohorilla’s unit made repeated attacks on plants where the Germans had converted coal to synthetic fuel.
One of the larger such plants was near Leipzig, Germany.
The plant was protected by about 500 anti-aircraft cannons when Pohorilla’s unit bombed it in September 1944. When his unit returned in November, he said, the Germans had 1,000 such guns at the site.
“So it’s inevitable on the bomb run that you’re going to get hit. And we did get hit,” he said.
The right starboard engine – one of four on the plane – was disabled, he said, but the plane stayed in formation.
Pohorilla said the B-17s usually flew in formations of 32 to 36 planes, providing two significant advantages.
One, he said, is the formation could bring to bear a total of 420 .50-caliber machine guns against any attacking fighter planes.
The second is it allowed the planes to place their bombs in a circle only 1,000 feet wide.
Along with the formation, Pohorilla’s plane completed its attack. But because it was flying on only three engines, it was burning its fuel at a high rate.
The formation next headed west, with plans to turn north over the Ardennes forest – along the Belgium-German border – to return to base.
Because of its low fuel, Pohorilla and his crewmen threw everything out of the plane “that wasn’t nailed down,” he said. The pilot decided to head west, with hopes of making it to Dover, England.
They didn’t make it.
When it was clear the plane couldn’t cross the English Channel, the pilot ordered the crew to prepare to bail out. By that point, the plane was only 1,000 feet above the ground, making a parachute escape a risky proposition.
When the crewmen refused to jump, Pohorilla told the pilot he’d have to land the plane.
Without lowering the landing gear, the pilot crash-landed in a freshly plowed beet field in Belgium, with “dirt flying all over the place,” Pohorilla said.
With its fuel exhausted, the plane landed without a fire breaking out, and the crew jumped clear with no injuries.
Picked up by a British truck, the crew was taken to Allied-controlled Brussels, where they were billeted in a hotel.
“We were there for three days. I can’t remember a damned thing, but I know we had a hell of a good time,” Pohorilla said.
The crash occurred on the plane’s 18th mission, which meant the crew was only halfway through its 35-mission tour.
The Eighth Air Force originally sent airmen home after 25 bombing missions. When long-range U.S. fighter planes became available to protect the bombers, that limit was increased to 30 and then 35 missions, Pohorilla said.
Because of his success, he was part of a group known as the Lucky Bastard Club – an informal group based on the statistic that the average life expectancy of a bomber-crew member’s life was 15 missions.
His crew was given a week off back in England, making several sight-seeing stops, including a night at an old manor house outside Oxford.
“I stayed in Lady Evelyn’s room that night,” Pohorilla said. “Lady Evelyn wasn’t there, though, unfortunately.”
If his plane had crash-landed three weeks later, he said, it would have had to fly over the Battle of the Bulge, which by then was in full swing.
With one exception, the crew on Pohorilla’s plane survived the war. One gunner, 18 years old, was flying as a substitute on another B-17 that had gone down with its crew.
Pohorilla completed 35 missions and returned to the United States in February 1945.
“It was big relief, of course,” he said, but he still was qualified to fly, and Germany and Japan were not yet defeated.
The Germans’ surrender was announced in May 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August.
Pohorilla earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, married Ellen in 1947 and had two sons. His wife died in December 2000.
Among his postwar employers was Rohm and Haas Co., a chemical company founded in Germany.
Pohorilla is a VFW member and on the board of directors of the Motts Military Museum in Groveport, which, he said, helps educate visiting groups of school students about history.
His decorations include the Air Medal with silver cluster, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three battle stars, the Presidential Unit Citation and the World War II Victory Medal.
His advice to veterans is to “marry a good person. I married a great person. Keep your mind busy, your body busy. ... Just stay active and be a good citizen. Love the country.”
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