This year marks the 70th anniversary of some crucial events in World War II, including the surrender of Nazi forces, and later the surrender by Japan.
WXXI’s Randy Gorbman recently got a chance to sit down with one of this area’s World War II veterans, who still vividly remembers his experiences.
Elmer Pankratz is 92 years old. But the former fighter pilot, and Penfield resident, hasn’t allowed time to diminish his memories of what happened 70-plus years ago. Except for a few concessions to old age, like hearing aids, he stands tall as he shows me some of the mementos of his wartime experiences as a fighter pilot, like the maps he used to navigate over the skies of the European Theater, including during the Battle of the Bulge, which marked a 70th anniversary last December.
“This is the kind of map we used, and this is a German map, which were better than ours and the interesting part of this, is , all this green is woods, forests.”
Pankratz doesn’t just have maps, he also has copies of some of the photos he took, because that was his job. He was a tactical reconnaissance pilot, which meant that his main focus when flying his beloved P-51 Mustang was triggering the onboard cameras to take pictures of key German movements and materiel.
Pankratz, who later achieved the rank of Major in the reserves, says he had to take those photos without the benefit of anything even approaching today’s modern GPS.
“Man, would I have loved to have had that then because the desk was my lap, and I also had the controls, so, it was not a good situation .“
So imagine taking those photos from your fighter plane, when German soldiers on the ground are firing up at you. But Pankratz says that was the great thing about flying a plane as maneuverable as the Mustang.
“You know the beautiful thing about a fighter is that when they shoot at you, you’re like a fly in the summer, zip, zip, zip…try to catch one. No matter which way I turn, bam, they had me boxed, and they will do that, they have their formulas and all that but they never touched, so pretty close, but they never touched me.”
The major says he never got into a dogfight, although he once had a close encounter with a Messerschmitt. He tells me that almost wistfully, saying he had always wondered how he would have fared in air-to-air combat.
But Major Pankratz was always keenly aware of the dangers of flying, over the battlefield or elsewhere. When he was still in training stateside, he remembers just how lethal one mission turned out to be.
“Because on one night, on a training mission, about 50 of us took off, solo, and 11 planes went down and 9 guys died that night, that was just on my field, one night, on a training mission."
Even so, Pankratz doesn’t have a problem in talking about what happened to him during the war.
“I was very fortunate in that I didn’t have any of those horrible experiences that I can’t talk about . And I’ve got a lot of buddies that they can’t or won’t, either way, they just won’t communicate about it. I certainly had a lot of memories; you can’t fly in combat and not have memories
In fact, Pankratz has been part of a local group called the Geriatric Pilots Association, which has gone to local schools and libraries, showing photos and recounting their wartime experiences.
He says that group has dwindled down to just a few people, and he worries about the day when their won’t be anyone left who fought in World War II to share their memories firsthand.
“When we go, the stories go, and when we’re gone, there isn’t going to be anybody who says, you’re full of it, that’s not the way it was, this is what happened, I was there. “
Pankratz says one of the most moving experiences he’s had in recent years came through the Honor Flight program, when he got to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington.
“It rained all the while we were there, and when I told people about it when I came home I said, you know, it’s raining all the time, you had a lot of wet cheeks, but it wasn’t all from the rain.”
Pankratz doesn’t get to fly anymore, he did go up in a World War II-era plane a couple of years ago with another pilot, but still misses his P-51 Mustang, a plane he always dreamed of flying as a young man and eventually did during the war.
“Do you miss it,” ? I asked Elmer about flying that plane. “ Oh, yeah,” he answers, “There was not that many years ago, if somebody said, there’s a Mustang, go fly it, I would have. “