I remember 90-year-old Tom Pilot still riding his bike to Notre Dame’s Burke Golf Course with his small bag of clubs pulled over his shoulder. He lived to the age of 99.
So what do you think a guy named Pilot did for a living?
Good guess, but you’re wrong. Pilot was a longtime optometrist in South Bend, retiring in 1981.
But he did fly.
Oh, yeah, and he flew when it counted most. He was a Navy fighter pilot during World War II.
“Did I take some ribbing about my last name back then?” he told me with a laugh during our 2003 interview. “You better believe it. I got the business all the time.”
He demonstrated the little one-finger salute — a non-military one to be sure — that he gave those who continued to razz him.
But back then, back when he was young and daring and fighting for his country, he loved living up to his name. A Navy Lieutenant senior grade, Tom Pilot loved being a pilot.
“Most of us were a little nuts and just enjoyed the heck out of flying,” he said.
But theirs was a harrowing job nonetheless, flying off the USS Saratoga carrier in the South Pacific after Pearl Harbor pushed America into the war.
Tom’s squadron flew dive bombers — Douglas Dauntless Dive Bombers (SBD) — and operated under radio silence. Later in the war, he patrolled over the Atlantic, even circling the first German submarine to surrender off U.S. shores. Tom stayed ready with a 500-pound bomb in case the Germans changed their minds.
But his days in the Pacific, when the U.S. forces were trying to rebound from Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, were what he remembered most.
Tom had his close calls, but his last mission in September of 1943 went without a hitch for him and his radio man/gunner. He flew a four-hour triangular sector search that revealed no enemy movement and then he brought the SBD safely back to the Saratoga’s deck.
“Little did I know that I had flown my last mission in an SBD,” Tom said. “Right after that, our squadron was relieved and sent back to the States, and the SBDs were replaced by Curtiss Helldivers.”
He didn’t even get a chance to get sentimental over his Douglas Dauntless Dive Bomber. “Even though we weren’t going to fly them anymore, the SBDs were given to the New Zealand Air Force.”
Tom was off to another ocean to patrol before celebrating the end of the war. He then finished his optometry schooling and he and his wife Kay started their family in South Bend.
But he never forgot his dive-bombing days in the South Pacific and the men with whom he served. Of course, that all eventually became ancient history.
Until he got a phone call in 2003 that brought it all back.
The call was from Don Hoff, one of the radio men from Tom’s old squadron. Hoff told him there was going to be a reunion in Hugoton, Kansas as part of a 50th anniversary celebration for World War II veterans.
Hoff also mentioned that along with those SOBs from the squadron, an old SBD — a Douglas Dauntless Dive Bomber — was going to be there, too.
“I guess the New Zealanders had crashed a plane here and a plane there until just about all the SBDs we gave them were gone,” Tom said. “Then just last year, one of them that had crashed on the island of Bougainville, just east of the Solomon Islands, was found in the jungle.”
Severely damaged, the aircraft was shipped to Hugoton, where a couple of World War II buffs were planning to restore it.
“Seven of the pilots who flew SBDs off the Saratoga were there, along with many other veterans,” Tom added. ”We were part of the parade through town and were treated as honored guests.”
When Tom finally got to see the old SBD, it brought back memories. He couldn’t help but run his hand over its surface and remember when he flew a plane just like it.
He also met Greg Morris, the mechanic who was restoring it. “Tom Pilot?” Morris said as he shook hands.
Tom was prepared to get some more razzing about his last name.
But Morris had a serious look on his face. “I’ve got the log book on this plane and it shows that you were the last Navy pilot ever to fly it. I’ll tell you, though, f had a hard time figuring it out because under the category of pilot in the log book, all it said was ‘Pilot.’ I thought somebody had made a mistake.”
Tom Pilot, the old fighter pilot, was listening to Morris but he couldn’t see him very well. That’s because of the tears that had welled up in his eyes.
Contact Bill at [email protected]