First American Indian to Fly for Navy; Heroic Rescue in World War II Earns Pilot Distinguished Flying Cross

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 8, 2009 | Go to article overview

First American Indian to Fly for Navy; Heroic Rescue in World War II Earns Pilot Distinguished Flying Cross


Byline: William Connery, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

He lives in a cozy, quiet neighborhood in Arlington, but 87-year-old Tom Oxendine has quite a story to tell.

Born in 1921, he was the oldest of eight children in an all-Indian community in Robeson County, N.C. His father was an Indian schoolteacher. Mr. Oxendine and his five brothers all went to college and played varsity football. One sister became a professor of business administration and the other an elementary schoolteacher.

Mr. Oxendine grew up as a Cherokee and enrolled in Cherokee Indian Normal College, which is now the University of North Carolina at Penbrook.

It's unusual, but I never sat in a classroom with a black person or a white person until I went in the Navy, Mr. Oxendine said.

In 1941, Horace Barnes, who had a flight school in Lumberton N.C., petitioned the government to do a study to train 10 American Indians to fly, similar to the study being done with blacks in Tuskegee, Ala. Nine men and one woman were selected. Mr. Oxendine is the only surviving member.

When Mr. Oxendine entered the Navy, he received all kinds of publicity as a Cherokee. Because there was so much confusion between the Cherokees in Robeson County, the Eastern Band of Cherokees in western North Carolina and the main body of Cherokees in Oklahoma, the Robeson County tribe petitioned to change its name to Lumbee, the Indian name for the local river.

I went in as a Cherokee and came out as a Lumbee, Mr. Oxendine said.

When he entered the Navy, he could fly already. No one else had a license, so he was sought quite often to explain maneuvers that others did not quite understand.

Mr. Oxendine wants people to understand how he became the first Indian to go through Navy flight training. The Navy restricted its officer corps to Caucasians. Indians could attain any of the enlisted grades, but not be officers. Blacks could only be stewards.

That's just the way it was in those days, Mr. Oxendine said.

However, a couple of months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Oxendine was allowed to enter flight training even though there was no enlisted program for him. He got all types of publicity as being the first American Indian to go through the naval aviation flight program.

He sometimes would receive 100 letters a week from well-wishers and be in wire photos and publications such as Look magazine. In February 1942, he went for initial training at the Naval Air Station, Atlanta, and then to Jacksonville, Fla., for primary, advanced and operational training.

Mr. Oxendine was assigned to observation aircraft as a junior aviator. That was the O2SU Kingfisher, flying off a cruiser. His first duty station was the USS Mobile, and he was involved in 33 major fleet engagements, part of Task Force 3858, in all the island hopping, from Wake Island through the Second Battle of the Philippines.

In November 1942, he was onboard the USS Mobile, which had three pilots and two aircraft.

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