Episode #407 of Hometown Heroes introduces you to two of the “Old Bold Pilots,” a group that meets every Wednesday morning at a Southern California restaurant for breakfast and a chance to trade stories from long ago. CLICK HERE for an article on the group from Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine.
On this edition of Hometown Heroes you’ll hear first from Rod Braswell, a 94-year-old recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, who completed 50 missions as a B-24 pilot with the 456th Bomb Group in Europe during World War II.
Three of those missions targeted the heavily defended Ploesti oil fields in Romania. “I can see all that flak coming from the ground and bursting in the air,” you’ll hear Braswell remember. “Where the sky is almost black from those shells breaking, and I know that my turn to go through that is coming.” Braswell says his plane was hit by shrapnel on just about every mission, and chaos and tragedy were all around him. “I watched my buddies fall out of the sky,” he says. He also gives us a palpable picture of what it was like to fly high altitude missions under relatively primitive technological conditions. “We’re flying high, at 25,000 feet,” you’ll hear him say. “It’s probably about 35 degrees below zero. We have to wear oxygen masks at that altitude, and the condensation from your breathing is freezing around your neck and forming ice.” Since metal plating on their seats protected pilots from behind, they wore flak suits with metal sewn into the front, but the resulting weight imbalance would leave the collar digging into the back of Braswell’s neck. They needed helmets for protection, but the helmets they were issued did not allow for wearing earphones. “My ears are being crushed, I’m cold, and being shot at,” he says in summation.
You’ll also hear about a mission in which he was down to just two working engines, both on the same wing of the four-engine bomber. Polling the crew about potential options, he found the only one that presented the possibility of continuing to fly missions was trying to land the crippled B-24 on a B-25 strip in Corsica. The ten-man crew unanimously voted for that risky choice.
“I thought that’s one of the reasons we’re called the ‘Greatest Generation,'” Braswell explains. “Because ten men want to fly and fight again.”
You’ll hear the extreme measures the crew had to take to get that bomber in safely, and also hear about other hairy moments, including the one that left Rod with a unique souvenir.
From the mission that left him with a four-inch long piece of flak now mounted on the wall of his Oceanside home, to another when anti-aircraft bursts exploded right in the nose of his plane, Braswell gives us a real feel for what it was like to survive some incredible things in the skies over Europe. You’ll even hear about how the farm boy ingenuity of his flight engineer Don Gronlund saved the plane, and in Braswell’s estimation, saved his life. “I think I had a guardian angel,” he says. “Because so many people did not come back and I was one that did.”
We also get a taste of the colorful personality of Steve Pisanos, a double fighter ace known as “The Flying Greek.” Born in Athens, Greece, he came to America as a teenager, jumping off a merchant ship in Baltimore, MD and heading for New York. His possessions were minimal, his communication with his family nonexistent, but you’ll hear him share the incredible ways in which his story progressed from there. Read THIS STORY from Voice of America about Steve’s one-of-a-kind journey, or order his book, The Flying Greek online HERE.
His first combat experience came with the Royal Air Force’s No. 71 Eagle Squadron, comprised of pilots recruited from the United States. Battling against German fighter planes as he flew British Hurricanes and Spitfires, his enemy would not change when he was welcomed into the American’s 4th Fighter group, flying P-47s and later P-51s. As a result of that 1943 conversion from British to U.S. forces, Steve became the first person in U.S. history to be naturalized as an American citizen outside the United States. Within eight months he had become an ace in the skies over Europe. You’ll hear Steve describe in vivid detail the events of March 5, 1944, including the moment depicted on the cover of his book. “I was on an escort mission down to Bordeaux, France,” you’ll hear him recall, about a dogfight in which he engaged Nazi fighter pilots. “I shot down three of the guys there, and of course, on the way back, I lost my engine.” The story of how he survived his P-51 Mustang’s crash landing has raised a few eyebrows over the years. “I decided not to bail out at high altitude because the Germans were really shooting at anybody coming down in a parachute,” Pisanos says. As the crippled plane got closer and closer to the ground, Steve worked his way out onto the wing. When the other wing touched the ground, he was flung in the air, just clearing the still-turning propeller as he tumbled to the ground. His shoulder was badly injured from the fall, but immediately he thought of destroying the aircraft. Before he could set it aflame, German bullets started whizzing by his head, and the young pilot decided to make a run for a nearby forest. After five days foraging for food and avoiding capture, he connected with the French Underground, which eventually returned him to freedom. After the war, he became a test pilot, flying captured enemy airplanes like the Messerschmidt ME-262 and the Mitsubishi Zero to get a feel for their capabilities. He also tested out the United States’ first fighter jet, the P-80. During the Korean War, he ferried P-51 Mustangs to Korea, and during the Vietnam War, he flew more than 100 missions in a squadron of C-7a Caribou cargo planes. With all the incredible twists and turns his 96 years have taken, Steve doesn’t have to think twice when asked what amazes him the most. “Becoming an American citizen,” he says.
“This wonderful country is the greatest in the world.”
Enjoy THIS STORY from the San Diego Tribune about an honor Steve received in 2010. He has been inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space museum, where he has also taken part in the museum’s oral history project. Listen to Hometown Heroes for Steve’s secret for staying so young at heart and in such good health at age 96, he says he used running shoes for high arches all his life and it helped him stay on shape also he mentions how he follow a diet found on https://www.thedietdynamo.com/, as well as the one plane he would most love to fly today. If you pay a visit some Wednesday morning to the Old Bold Pilots at Denny’s on the corner of Vista Way and El Camino Real in Oceanside, please thank them for serving our country, and stick around to hear some stories you won’t hear anywhere else.
Steve Pisanos passed away on June 6, 2016. Read this account of his passing from the San Diego Union Tribune.