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John T. Wozer started from the ground up in becoming a pilot with the Army Air Forces.

After graduating from St. Bernard High School in Bradford, Pa., he found work with the Army Corps of Engineers building what would become Bradford Regional Airport.

Wozer assisted in surveying the land for the runways. Then, one day when they were barely half-finished, a P-39 Airacobra fighter plane from the Bell Aircraft factory in Wheatfield suddenly made an emergency landing.

“When I saw that pilot get out the plane with his leather jacket and his silver wings, that’s when I knew I wanted to go” into the Army Air Forces, the 89-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident recalls.

On Dec. 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wozer took the air cadet exam at the U.S. Post Office on Ellicott Street in downtown Buffalo and scored well. Fast-forward to late October 1944, when he joined his outfit, the 366th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force, as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot.

“We were called the Hun Hunters,” he says, but because of the versatility of the Thunderbolt, they were also sometimes known as “fighter-bomber boys.”

The biggest of the fighter planes, the Thunderbolt could deliver more than just an average jolt.

Each wing was equipped with three rockets and four .50-caliber machine guns, and that’s not all. The wings could each carry a single bomb weighing up to 1,000 pounds. Talk about firepower.

Wozer flew 47 combat missions and on three, he found himself in dogfights against the Luftwaffe over northern France and Belgium. To make the plane nimble, if he was to stand a chance in evading and chasing enemy aircraft, he said, he had to get rid of his P-47’s heavy load of rockets and bombs.

“In a dogfight, you try to get on the enemy’s tail, coming right up his back and shooting,” he says. “It’s you against this other person, and you’re both trying to survive. You’re constantly maneuvering. You got your throttle, your stick and your rudders. You’ve got to outfly the enemy, and that’s all.”

Then there was the flak from German anti-aircraft guns that Wozer and his fellow flyboys had to contend with.

“When you had this flak all around you, the formation you flew in would suddenly spread out,” Wozer recalls. “You didn’t fly together, so you weren’t one big target. Each one of us went on our own way and continued in the general direction of our target, regrouping as soon as we could.”

The goal was to destroy the enemy: troops on the march, truck convoys, bridges, ordnance factories – all were targets. “During the Battle of the Bulge, we flew 15 minutes to a half-hour to get to the target; they were that close,” he says. “At times, our airstrips were snowed in. It was one of the worst winters on record, but sometimes we’d fly two missions the same day.”

On one of those flights, he says, the flak was so thick that it pierced not only the wings of his plane, but the cockpit. Fortunately, “the flak never hit my skin.”

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, he received orders that he was heading to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, but then the war ended there in August.

“Harry dropped the bomb,” Wozer said of President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1946, Wozer joined the Air Force Reserve and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. He went to work for Calspan in Cheektowaga, where he met his future wife, Winifred Oberle. They went on to raise three children.

Wozer stays in touch with about 10 other World War II pilots, mostly through his membership in the 366th Fighter Group Association, which includes flyboys from Korea and Vietnam, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

John T. Wozer, 89

• Hometown:

Lewis Run, Pa.

• Residence:

Town of Tonawanda

• Branch: Army Air Forces

• Rank: First lieutenant

• War zone: Europe

• Years of service:

Active duty, 1942-45;

Air Force Reserve, 1946-60

• Most prominent honors:

Air Medal with seven oak

leaf clusters, Presidential

Unit Citation, Belgian

Fourragére Medal

• Specialty: Pilot, P-47

Thunderbolt