At 97, Mike Mombrea of the Town of Tonawanda remains trim and energetic. He is a charming raconteur, with a gift for putting strangers at ease.
Storytelling is second-nature to Mombrea. He is able to recall, in vivid detail, his exploits of more than 70 years ago, when he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a pilot instructor for scores of enlisted airmen sent on heroic, dangerous missions during World War II.
Mombrea was working for American Optical – manufacturing prisms for Navy periscopes – when the United States was drawn into the war following the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Flat feet, he said, precluded him from considering enlistment in the Army.
“I had never been near an airplane in my life. I was crazy when I was a young kid. I have flat feet … and I couldn’t see myself walking on those 10-mile hikes. So I went and joined the Air Corps,” Mombrea recalled, as he settled into a sofa in his home.
Mombrea served three years in the Air Corps, from 1942 to 1945, stateside. His stories are not about the derring-do of the Battle of the Bulge or Iwo Jima.
Still, Mombrea’s experiences as a pilot instructor, at airfields in Kansas and Texas, were not without tragic loss.
“When I first got to Texas for my first phase of training, I made friends with four other students from all over the country. We became very close friends. We used to help each other with our academics … One of the fellas I made friends with, my very best friend, was Robert Mum from Laredo, Texas, and he knew more about flying even before he got into the training. We spent a lot of time together,” Mombrea said.
Whenever the five of them were given the option to choose another assignment, they made sure to go together, Mombrea said.
“The day that we got our wings, July 29, 1943, we had a choice of flying two different planes, the P-51 fighter or the P-38 fighter. We all loved the P-51. So we all applied for the P-51 to be sent overseas. When the orders came out that day, the other four guys got P-51s and they told me I had to go to be an instructor. I was devastated, because these were very close friends,” he said.
Mombrea said, after a pause: “My best friend was overseas for like three months flying a P-51, and he was on a mission. It was a successful mission, and he was on his way back to Anzio (Italy). That’s when the Allied Forces took over their airfield. Bob Mum was supposed to land at the Anzio airfield.”
After another pause, he continued. “A couple of miles before he got there, somebody from the ground fire was shooting up and they hit his engine and he crashed a mile before he got to the runway. He was killed. I still kept in touch with his brother, who was a bombardier,” Mombrea said.
“We used to visit his family when we were training in Laredo. He had a wonderful family. I got to know his whole family,” he added.
Mombrea said he learned recently from Mum’s brother that Robert Mum’s fiancee never married and still sleeps with his photograph next to her bedside.
Mombrea struggled to maintain his composure, as he remembered his friend.
“I usually keep in touch with his family to let them know I’m thinking about them,” he said.
“I don’t know if it was guilt. As I said, I was very, very disappointed that I didn’t…,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I believe in the Lord, and I think the Lord knew what he was doing, because two of those guys were shot down and killed.”
“I almost feel guilty, because I didn’t stick my neck out. Those guys, they were the real heroes,” Mombrea said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Reminded that somebody had to train those brave pilots, he responded: “Well, that’s a consolation. That made me feel good. Now I feel like I have some worth. I never looked at it that way.”
Mombrea never learned why he wasn’t assigned to fly missions overseas during the war, but he recalled having his own close calls, flying the two-seater military planes with wooden propellers.
During leave, he and a friend from Boston, Mass., would fly together, taking turns as pilot and navigator.
“He would drop me off in Buffalo. He’d go to Boston, then come pick me up and take me back,” Mombrea said.
He recalled a time they flew out of Coffeyville, Kan., at dusk, ran into bad weather and were forced to fly blind. “After we took off from Kansas, we were going to land in a place outside of St. Louis …to refuel,” Mombrea said.
“We were up maybe 6,000 feet at the time. We tried to get into this radio system, but it wasn’t working for some reason. So the pilot said, ‘Let’s go down 1,000 feet and maybe we’ll see land and get below the clouds.’ We dropped down 1,000 feet and we see nothing. He said, ‘Let’s go down another 1,000 feet.’ Now we’re down to 4,000 feet. We weren’t far from Denver, where all the Rocky Mountains are. During the war, many pilots were lost like we were, not knowing where they were, and would descend 1,000 feet and they’d run into a mountain. They would crash and we would have to go get the remains,” he said.
Mombrea suggested to his friend they bail out. His friend, who was piloting, insisted on going down 1,000 more feet and bail out only if they couldn’t see land.
“So we go down the last 1,000 feet and just as we got down to that altitude, we were in and out of the clouds and I could see the field where we were going to land. We had hardly any gas left and there were fire engines and ambulances waiting for us,” Mombrea said.
They landed safely.
Mombrea’s one regret is that he never got to fly the P-51 fighter. “It was my dream trip,” he said.
Mombrea had two brothers, also pilots during World War II. Their mother was not keen on any of them becoming pilots, Mombrea said. His middle brother, Dan, who died five years ago, flew B-47 planes near Okinawa. His youngest brother, Joseph, was a command pilot on B-52 bombers for the Strategic Air Corps. “He’s still living in Fort Lauderdale,” Mombrea said.
“I haven’t flown for many, many years,” he said.
Mombrea estimated he had trained more than 100 pilots during World War II. A retired news photographer, he got in on television in 1950 at WBEN-TV, now WIVB-TV Channel 4. He retired in 1984.
Mombrea lost out on an opportunity to become a commercial pilot after the war because of an ulcer discovered during his physical, but he has no regrets.
He was married for 70 years. His wife, the former Fay Tortora, died five years ago at 90. They raised five children together, including three sons who all became photographers. He has 15 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
“We’re a very close family. We get together quite often,” said Mombrea, who served for many years as a Eucharistic minister at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in the Town of Tonawanda.
“You know, I love life,” he said. “To me, life is fascinating. There’s so many thing I still have yet to learn and I love hearing other people’s stories. I don’t think mine are any better than anybody else’s.”
- Mike Mombrea Sr., 97
- Hometown: Buffalo
- Residence: Town of Tonawanda
- Branch: Army Air Force
- Rank: First Lieutenant
- War zone: Stateside
- Service: 3 years
- Specialty: Flight instructor
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