During World War II, Bob Pioli was a bombardier in the nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, where his main job was to make sure the plane flew straight and level the last few miles of the bomb run.
In order to hit their targets, the bombers couldn’t turn left or right, and were forced to fly directly into the path of hundreds of anti-aircraft gunners on the ground who knew their range and their speed. They were sitting ducks for any German fighters.
For Pioli and the other nine men aboard his B-17, luck ran out on April 13, 1944, in the skies over Hungary. Pioli had seen planes fall around him during the bomb run, and he and the other members of the crew were thankful they were not in any of the stricken aircraft.
“When we turned to go home, after we breathed that sigh of relief, the fighters hit us,” Pioli, 91, told a group of students at Capital High School on Friday.
Soon, the pilot came on the intercom to tell his crew their bomber had been hit. He warned everyone to bail out, and Pioli began trying to figure out the best way to get out of a Flying Fortress heavy bomber that was on fire and falling fast.
Eventually, he decided to dive out the bomb bay, which sent him cartwheeling through space. After what seemed an eternity, his parachute opened, and Pioli found himself floating toward the ground.
Then he noticed enemy soldiers firing rifles at him from below. He was so worried about getting shot that he didn’t notice the ground looming closer and closer beneath his feet.
“I hit that ground like I jumped off a 10-story building,” Pioli recalled.
His feet collapsed and Pioli passed out. He would spend the rest of the global conflict in German prisoner-of-war camps.
Matthew Cox, a history teacher in his third year at Capital High, first met Pioli when the WWII veteran came to talk to Cox’s class at Parkersburg High School in 2005. Cox was mesmerized by his stories of being a prisoner, and when he had the chance to interview someone for a college project, he picked Pioli.
When Cox went to work at Capital High, Pioli seemed the obvious choice to talk to his students. The first time Pioli addressed the class, “You could hear a pin drop,” Cox said.
Friday was Pioli’s second visit to Capital, where students seemed entranced by his stories of the war. Pioli told of days and nights of interrogation, forced marches through the snow to distant POW camps and trying to put things over on the German guards.
For a while, Pioli was housed at Stalag Luft III, where prisoners had staged an ultimately unsuccessful escape attempt captured in the movie “The Great Escape.” He would end the war at a camp not far from Munich, which American troops liberated on another sunny day, in April 1945.
Pioli said the prisoners knew the Americans were close by the sound of gunfire in the distance. Before long, a P-51 Mustang fighter plane roared over the camp, waggling its wings to let the prisoners know that help was coming.
“About that time, a tank burst through the fence,” Pioli said. “It just knocked the fence down.”
Prisoners swarmed the tank. Somewhere along the line, they noticed the Nazi flag being lowered from a towering flagpole that had taunted the prisoners. Trying to hold back tears, Pioli explained how the red Nazi flag, with its ugly black swastika, was replaced by the Stars and Stripes, which was hauled up the flagpole.
It would be several more weeks before the war ended and Pioli and the other prisoners were sent home. But to this day, Pioli said, the sight of an American flag means he is no longer a POW.
For 50 years, Pioli said, he didn’t want to talk about the war or his experiences as a prisoner. But he decided to start talking to students about it while he still had time.
After his talk, students flocked to Pioli to ask him questions and have their pictures taken with him.
Jessica Cullop and Morgan King, who graduated Thursday, came back to school on Friday, just to hear Pioli speak.
“It was great to actually talk to somebody who was there, rather than reading it in a book,” said Cullop.
“He’s somebody you don’t expect to hear from in real life,” agreed King. “You see it in the movies.”
Pioli, who turns 92 next week, urged students to make the most of their educations. He said he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to tell his story to students, but said he’d be willing to come back to Capital High any time he’s asked.
“He’s the best history teacher these kids will have,” said Cox.
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1215.