Don Pierini and Joe Joiner take to air in a P-51 Mustang one last time

Photos courtesy of Donald F. Pierini

Pierini and Joiner at Stallion 51 in Kissimee, FL next to one of the company's dual-control Mustangs

The guys in formation. Still hotshot pilots after all these years

An article that appeared on the Houston Chronicle's web page about the event. It is used without the owner's consent.

November 10, 1998, 08:26 p.m.

Two World War II veterans relive their fighter-pilot days

Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle

World War II dogfights between Allied and German pilots over Europe have been compared to the jousting matches of knights during the Middle Ages.

The romance of one-on-one combat made many young Americans yearn to be fighter pilots, but very few were chosen.

Among them were Joseph H. "Joe" Joiner of Corpus Christi and his best Army Air Force buddy, Donald J. Pierini, a Trenton, N.J., native who has made Austin his home.

Joiner, Pierini and millions of other Americans will be honored today, Veterans Day, for their service to their country.

The two stayed in the Air Force, retiring as lieutenant colonels. They recently revisited their past by flying restored P-51 Mustangs similar to the ones they flew in World War II.

They served in the 336th Fighter Squadron in the 8th Air Force's storied 4th Fighter Group, which shot down more enemy planes than any other American fighter group in Europe.

Joiner, who just turned 77, recalled an Sept. 11, 1944, mission when he and some squadronmates were winging back to their Debden, England, base after helping shepherd a flight of bombers during an attack on a Nazi target in Europe.

Suddenly they saw seven "bogies" -- unidentified aircraft -- heading in the opposite direction.

The Yanks quickly jettisoned auxiliary gasoline tanks attached to the wings of their P-51s and gave chase to what turned out to be German Messerschmidt-109 fighters. Soon, a series of dogfights erupted.

"I pulled up on the tail of the leader and shot him a short burst," Joiner recalled in a recent interview. "The pilot's canopy popped open, and he bailed out."

That was his first kill. There would be three more later, plus a half-kill, leaving him one half-kill short of being an "ace." He also was credited with destroying four other planes in a strafing attack on a German airfield.

Pierini shot down one plane and destroyed three others on the ground.

"One minute there are planes all over the sky, and the next you're going against a German fighter one-on-one. And maybe one of you is going to die," said Pierini, now 74.

But more often, the fights were inconclusive.

Though there might be 15 minutes of maneuvering, Pierini said, the gun cameras would capture just seconds of the action because they took pictures only while the guns were being fired.

"You would wind up soaking wet with sweat because you really had to muscle a P-51 or any other fighter then," said Joiner.

The "fun part" of their missions came after the bombers in their care were headed home.

Then fighter pilots could go "down on the deck" and strafe "targets of opportunity" on the ground. Locomotive engines in particular were entertaining, because a hit could explode one and send clouds of smoke billowing high into the air.

Many of their squadronmates were killed or captured, but Joiner and Pierini said they didn't let that distract them.

"You felt bad about those you knew were killed," Pierini said, "but this didn't deter me. I knew I had a job to do."

Joiner, seconding those sentiments, recalled how he and Pierini roomed together at their base. Three were supposed to share their room, he said, but after three successive roommates were lost in action, no one else would bunk with them.

Pierini had a close call when damage to his P-51's fuel tank forced him down in German-held territory in Belgium. Fortunately, the Germans didn't find his plane, and the Belgian underground managed to get him enough fuel to fly back to England the next day.

Upon his return, he found his friends had divided up his belongings, as was customary when a pilot was lost. But they returned everything.

The children of the two veteran pilots arranged for their dads to reprise their youth by getting another chance to fly a P-51, generally regarded as America's premiere WWII fighter.

Three of Pierini's offspring living here -- Christine Pierini, Bill Pierini and Allyn Riley -- joined in the effort, made possible by a Florida flying service which has maintained two Mustangs in tip-top shape.

"I would never have done it on my own," said Joiner, who flew with an Air Force P-51 stunt group called the Red Devils after the war, "but if Don was going to do it, I was."

In October, with their families watching, the two old pilots put the P-51s through their paces for little over an hour, diving, looping and rolling and flying in formation.

"It was an eye-opener for me," Pierini said. "I asked myself, `Did I do this when I was a young man?' I've got more than 5,000 hours of flying time in now. Back then I had just a little under 300 hours. I said, `My goodness, I'm impressed.' "

"I thought it would feel like it was the strangest plane I'd ever sat in," Joiner recalled, "but after about five or 10 minutes, I felt right at home, in control, ready to go into combat again. I can't believe how much I enjoyed flying that P-51."

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