I was in Miss Ruby Dial’s library one day in 1956, standing by the window, when I heard a low noise coming from the west. It grew louder and louder, and finally overwhelming. By this time the kids were yelling, “That’s Tom Boy! That’s Tom Boy!”
We all knew what it meant. I had heard the noise before, but from a distance. It was Tom Oxendine, the only Lumbee Indian pilot in 1956. He was in the Navy, stationed at Norfolk. He had buzzed his daddy’s farm a few times before, but since his daddy lived across the river from us, we could not get the full effect. He told me 20 years later that he was delivering the fighter to Mississippi.
This time he went right down the railroad tracks across the road from the high school. He was at 100 or 200 feet, flying at 300 or 400 miles an hour. He went down that track for two more miles, pulled the nose up, kicked the rudder over, and did an Immelman Turn by the store at Moss Neck. Then he brought it back down over the railroad and ran back west at the same low altitude. We kids were very excited.
I knew who Tom was, but didn’t meet him until two decades later. But he and my other pilot hero, Arch Lockee, influenced me to go into the Air Force. I found a brochure on the Air Force in Miss Ruby’s library later that year and seven years later went in as an aviation cadet.
When Tom died a few months ago, we lost a national hero. Not only did he finish a career in the Navy as a pilot, he got out of service in 1945, went to Pembroke State to finish his college degree, and went back in the Navy. He played football, baseball and basketball when he was back in college. He was one of the first people inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at UNC Pembroke in 1980.
He was the first Indian ever to become a pilot in the Navy. He had attended the pilot school in Lumberton as a teenager. Horace Barnes ran the school and it turned out a number of great Indian pilots. Fannie Belle Hunt was another one of them.
Tom went in the Navy in 1942. His first duty was flying off the USS Mobile. He served in three wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross in WWII for saving a downed airman. Under heavy fire, he landed his seaplane near the pilot, who had been shot down by Japanese fire, and brought him back to safety. The DFC is one of the highest medals.
Tom had high commands during the last part of his career. He was chief of plans for the Navy Office of Public Information in the Pentagon. He commanded the Navy’s largest flight training school in Florida. He was in charge of public affairs for the Naval Air Systems Command.
Gary Lockee told me of the time this seaplane came taxiing up to his ship. Gary had gone into the Navy in 1943 and stayed 30 years, retiring as a captain. Tom Oxendine taxied his plane up next to his ship and invited him to come over for lunch. They did eat together a couple of days later, after Gary got permission to take a boat over to Tom’s ship.
That is the kind of bravado Tom displayed when he buzzed his hometown, Pembroke, N.C. He never got caught, and if he had, he would have been in a little trouble.
The first time I met Tom he was already working for the BIA. After serving his country in the Navy for 28 years, he became head of the public relations department for BIA. He ran that department for 16 years. He gave the BIA the most credibility it has ever had. He turned out press releases by the thousands, probably making him the most prolific PR man the BIA has ever had. I got them by the hundreds as a magazine editor in the 1970s.
He would introduce me to other people by saying, “I went to school with his mother.” He was constantly amazed that he had lived through three wars and was finally living in D.C. He flew 16 different aircraft in the Navy, many of them demanding landing on the deck of a carrier. This is still one of the scariest and most dangerous things to do in the world. Tom landed on one carrier 177 times. He told his brother Joe, the former chancellor of UNC Pembroke, “Joe, I could go out there in the middle of the night and fly 100 miles in the dark and land comfortably on the aircraft carrier.”
Joe said, “Tom, when you are flying that plane and getting ready to land on that aircraft carrier and not being able to see, I will not be on the plane with you.”
Tom was my hero. He was the oldest in his family. My mother was always proud to know him. He was flying airplanes before he was 18.
He was in 33 battles in WWII, all of them in the Pacific. He was one of the lucky ones; he came home alive, and was never shot down. (Former President George H. W. Bush was not so lucky. He got shot down and crashed in one of the battles. But the crew of his ship saved him.)
When Tom started school in 1928, there were three school systems in Robeson County – one for whites, one for blacks, and one for Indians. When I was in school, for two years we met the white bus every morning and every afternoon. It was taking white kids to their school at Philadelphus, and our bus was taking the Indian kids to Pembroke.
Juddie Revels Jr. told me years ago that his daddy told him not to look at the white kids on their bus. “He told me he would whip me good if I looked at the white kids.” Indians could not be uppity with whites. It was an invitation to a beating, or possibly worse. Segregation was strictly enforced.
But this did not stop Tom. At a time when doors were not open to Indians, Tom made a difference. He went from poor farm boy to the top of his profession. It inspired all his brothers and sisters, all of whom finished college. One of them became a college professor, one became a college president, and one became a high school principal.
I last saw Tom Boy last summer. I was sitting in Linda’s with my Aunt Flora Jane and them and here comes Tom. “Hey, Dean, it’s good to see you,” he said. “I want you to come over here and meet the rest of my family.” I met his son, Bob, who is a prominent attorney in Tampa, Fla., and his wife and children, and Tom’s wife.
Tom Oxendine, John L. Carter, Dr. Herbert Oxendine, Gary Lockee, Arch Lockee, Grady Oxendine, James Dial, James Brewington, Tecumseh Brayboy, and Miles Jones were just a few of the heroes I had growing up. I’m really glad I had heroes. Otherwise I might not have done anything in life. I appreciate them.
We need to remember our heroes and teach about them in schools. That’s why I wrote a book about it.
Dean Chavers, Ph.D., is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program for American Indians, located in Albuquerque, N.M. His e-mail is CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. His latest book is “Racism in Indian Country,” published by Peter Lang Publishers. His book before that was a two-volume work of 800 pages called “Modern American Indian Leaders” published by Mellen Press.