Oxendine, war hero, dies
by Johna Strickland
Tom Oxendine, left, a Pembroke native, flew combat missions for the Navy during World War II. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing a downed airman.
PEMBROKE — Thomas Oxendine, the Pembroke native known as “Tom-boy” who would buzz Robeson County in his naval jet and the first American Indian to complete Navy flight school, died Thursday. He was 87.
Oxendine died at his Arlington, Va., due to complications related to his age, according to Joe Oxendine, his brother and the former chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The funeral will be 2:30 p.m. Monday at Pembroke Berea Baptist Church. Burial will follow in the Sandcutt Cemetery. The visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Locklear and Son Funeral Home.
Although Oxendine left Robeson County decades ago, he discovered a passion for flying at the Lumberton airport in the 1940s. That led him to the Navy; service in World War II, the Korean war and the Vietnam war; and a career flying more than 15 aircraft, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and other accolades and was named a pioneer in aviation by the North Carolina Museum of History.
“He was my hero. He was the oldest of the family,” Joe Oxendine said. “He was a hero to me and to my family and to many people in the community. … Most of us were proud to ride a bicycle or drive a car and he, at 18, could fly an airplane.”
Oxendine learned to fly from Horace Barnes, who owned the Lumberton airport in the 1940s and participated in a government-funded program to train minority pilots as a pre-war initiative.
Once Oxendine was cleared to fly solo, he fired up a Piper Club and flew low over the 40-acre family farm where they grew tobacco, cotton and corn outside of Pembroke. He would turn the engine off and shout at his family on the ground, asking, “What are we having for supper?”
By 1941, the United States entered World War II and Oxendine signed up for the U.S. Navy in January 1942.
“He was one of the first one to leave his home,” Joe Oxendine said. “… He was curious and wanted to reach out and find out what was out there beyond the Robeson County area. And he did that. … He was the oldest brother, so he had to be the pioneer. … He didn’t feel like there was a barrier that would restrict him from doing anything he wanted to do. So, he didn’t pay attention to any sort of restrictions.”
He was sent to flight school to become a fighter pilot, becoming the first American Indian to graduate. He fought in 33 battles during World War II in the Pacific theater.
On July 26, 1944, he departed from the USS Mobile, landed his seaplane on rough seas in a gun battle and saved a downed airman. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the rescue.
He later tested carrier aircraft for the Navy and instructed new pilots on the supersonic F8V Crusader. During his assignment to the USS Midway, he recorded 177 carrier landings and flew a slingshot plane off other carriers. He also flew missions in Korea and Vietnam.
“He loved flying and he loved to talk about flying,” Joe Oxendine said. “He used to say to me, ‘Joe, I could go out there in the middle of the night in a rainstorm and fly 100 miles in the dark and land comfortably on the aircraft carrier … .’ And I 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.’ ”
Oxendine returned home and graduated in 1948 from what is now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he played football, baseball and basketball. In 1980, he was one of the first people to be inducted in the athletic Hall of Fame at the university. He was proud to be the first recipient of the university’s Distinguished Almnus award in 1967, Joe Oxendine said.
Flying out of Norfolk, Va., or Florida, he would point his jet toward Pembroke. He showed up whenever he had time, usually on weekends and buzzed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
“Everyone knew that was Tom-boy,” Joe Oxendine said. “Nowadays they wouldn’t let a young man do that kind of thing. But it was exciting for him and exciting for the locals who knew him. He was a real war hero.”
He also flew over to Catawba College in Salisbury to see Joe Oxendine play football and baseball from 1948 to 1952.
“It kinda made me a hero because I had a brother who had his own plane and could fly in and fly out,” Joe Oxendine said. “So the college kids were excited about that.”
When Joe Oxendine moved to Boston for graduate school, Oxendine followed in his jet, parking at Logan airport and traveling by taxi to Joe Oxendine’s apartment.
After 29 years in the Navy, Oxendine retired and worked for 16 years as the chief of public affairs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. The last 15 years of his career were spent consulting with the EOP Group about American Indians and Alaska natives.
Although he lived and died in Virginia, “he loved his hometown,” Joe Oxendine said. Oxendine came to Robeson County for Christmas, events at UNCP and every Lumbee Homecoming.
“He loved to fly over, but he loved to come back and visit the community,” Joe Oxendine said. “He looked for any excuse or reason to come visit his community. He was always a home boy. … He was a good one.”
Article courtesy of Barbara Braveboy-Locklear (saywheretravel.com