Tom Maloney didn’t say much about his World War II days until a few years ago, when he became a docent at the Evergreen Aviation Museum. There, surrounded by aircraft and other veterans, he gradually started to talk.
Navy Lt. Maloney flew 200 missions in the Pacific Theater, mostly off the deck of an aircraft carrier. Flying a Douglas SPD, F4U Corsair or some other variety of dive bomber, he dropped 500, 1,000 and 2,000 pound bombs on sea and land targets in the South Seas and Japan.
He saw a lot of action. Along the way, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Navy Crosses, five air medals and other service awards.
He relates his memories with a spare, self-effacing style appreciated by his fellow docents and other veterans. They listen to his tales with interest and respect.
Still, Maloney is reluctant to divulge too much. And when he speaks about his service, he tries to put more emphasis on “we” than “I” — a nod to his buddies and the teamwork of military efforts, he said.
Besides, he said, “I don’t want to appear self-centered.”
If he ever was close to being self-centered, he had all the cockiness shaken out of him one day during dive-bomber training camp.
The 1938 graduate of McMinnville High School was in his junior year at Linfield College as the war loomed. His uncle, Larry Wolf, advised him to join on his own, so he could pick his branch, rather than wait until being drafted.
“So I joined the Air Corps,” said Maloney, who wanted to fly.
The 20-year-old passed the physical and eye exam, then did his basic training in Seattle and Corpus Christie, Texas. For his specialized training, he was sent to Parris Island, S.C., to join Air Group 23.
The young pilots practiced dropping smoke bombs at targets 10,000 to 15,000 feet below. Maloney was a natural, earning high scores for his accuracy.
When the unit commander chose him as his wingman, Maloney was proud. “My head got as big as a drum,” he said.
Naturally, when a pilot was needed to fly a rescue mission, searching for a downed plane, Maloney was chosen. He spotted the wreck and directed searchers to the area.
Again, pride swelled. “I thought I was the greatest thing since they invented the safety pin,” he said.
He decided to “make the hottest and greatest landing” ever when he returned to base, so his fellow airmen would be as impressed as he was by himself. He took off his hot helmet as he made a perfect descent toward the runway.
“But I forgot to put my wheels down,” Maloney recalled, sheepish.
Helmet off, he couldn’t hear the tower’s frantic signals. “I bounced to a stop, and I got scolded. I was under supervision in my room for a week.”
No longer proud, he believed his flying days were over. But the commander hadn’t forgotten his dive bombing skills. He made Maloney a member of an air group assigned to the USS Princeton, a light cruiser that had been converted into a carrier.
The Princeton cruised south to Trinidad, then over to the Pacific, heading for Hawaii. From there, Maloney and his fellow fliers were sent to Guadalcanal, where the U.S. had a strategic airfield.
“Hats off to the Seabees,” he said. “They did a wonderful job.”
There were only 212 American aircraft on Guadalcanal at the time, he said. The Japanese had more than 3,000 in the area, but the U.S. forces were more than holding their own.
After weeks of fighting, Maloney’s unit received five days of R&R. The pilots loaded into a pair of DC-3s for a flight to Sydney, Australia, where “we did more chasing girls than catching them.”
They returned to the south sea islands for more fighting. After another 50 missions, they went on R&R in Sydney again, chasing more girls with an equal lack of success.
On the way back, Maloney said, one of the two DC-3s crashed. Everyone on board — half his squad, including the skipper and executive officer — died.
In addition to the outright dangers of war, Maloney and his fellow servicemen faced difficult conditions living on the islands.
The heat was unbearable. When rain fell in the middle of the night, the pilots would run outside, naked, to enjoy the shower.
Tropical diseases were greatly feared. And the insects were just as bad.
One night as he lay in bed, Maloney felt a huge centipede crawl up his arm. He froze as the poisonous 11-inch insect walked down his back, then his leg.
When it stopped, “I jumped quick,” he said, “but not quick enough,” and the centipede bit him.
He rushed to the base doctor. Out of antidote, the doctor gave him a shot of morphine and told him to lie still.
“If you croak, that’s too bad,” the doc told him. “There’s nothing else I can do.”
But Maloney lived to fight another day.
He flew dive-bomber planes that dropped bombs weighing 500, 1,000 or 2,000 pounds. He was trained to come screaming straight down on his target.
Maloney said he’s often asked how fast he’d be going, or at what altitude he pulled up.
“When you’re dive bombing, you’re not looking at the instruments,” he said. “When the ground becomes large, you pull out. You don’t have time to look at instruments.”
Some pilots lost their lives in such maneuvers, he said, when they became so focused on the target they forgot to pull up in time.
Changing from a high-speed dive into a climb puts a lot of stress on a pilolt and plane, he said.
“You feel a bunch of G’s,” he said. “You don’t have time to be scared.”
His favorite was the Corsair F4U, because it was fast and maneuverable. He also flew the Douglas SPD Dauntless and other planes, including the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver.
The pilots called the Helldiver the “SOB 2nd Class.”
“It was a good plane,” he said. “We just called it that because we thought we were clever.”
Maloney made most of his takeoffs and landings on the deck of a carrier. As the shipped rolled and pitched in the waves, he had to accelerate to flight speed before reaching the end of the deck.
That worked if he was flying a plane carrying one of the smaller bombs, he said. But if he was carrying a 2,000-pounder, his plane had to be catapulted into the sky.
Returning from a mission was different for an aircraft carrier than an airport.
“When you leave a carrier, it’s not in the same place when you come back,” Maloney noted. “It could be 100, 150 miles away.”
And even then, it’s a moving target.
After he’d flown 100 missions, Maloney and his squad headed back to Hawaii, then to San Diego.
The pilots were finished with the front lines. Now they would work as trainers or fill desk jobs.
“We were in seventh Heaven,” he said. But not for long.
When Air Group 6 was created in Santa Rosa, its leader needed a replacement lieutenant. “Guess who he picked?” the McMinnville man said.
Soon he was headed west again on a freighter, en route to join the carrier Hancock in Hawaii.
“I remember going under the Golden Gate and watching it go out of sight,” he recalled. “My morale was about as low as anything could get.”
He flew numerous attacks against the enemy. Then, on an April Fool’s Day, he was part of the air support for the invasion of Okinawa.
Maloney, leading a division of dive bombers, received orders to destroy a concrete bridge. As he told the story of that mission, he noted, “There’s no manual that says how close to a concrete bridge you drop a 1,000 pound bomb.”
He dropped his bomb. Before he cleared the area, “chunks of concrete were shooting up through my plane,” he said.
He managed to coax the damaged plane over the hills and ditch it in the ocean, 10 miles offshore. The plane sank quickly, but Maloney and his navigator made it out with an inflatable raft.
They spotted a destroyer heading their way. To their relief, it was American.
He said the crew fished them out by their Mae Wests, “pulling us up like a couple of drowned rats.”
The men were in shock, so the ship’s doctor gave them some medicine — big glasses of whiskey. “All of a sudden, the war got just OK,” Maloney said with a grin.
Back in the pilot’s seat, Maloney continued bombing runs. He led a group of planes during the attack on Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island, and dropped bombs on a Japanese carrier and battleship.
When the war ended, his unit settled down on the USS Hancock for the journey home. The ship anchored in San Francisco Bay.
Pilots were told to fly their planes to the air base in San Diego.
“They put me on the catapult. I revved up, checked the magneto and signaled I was ready,” Maloney recalled. “Then the engine went sour.”
Although his plane didn’t have its full power, there was no turning back. The catapult shot him off the deck. Worrying that he would lose power entirely and be forced to ditch again, he hugged the coastline all the way south.
When he landed in San Diego, Maloney said, “I got out and said, ‘That’s it.’”
He folded his wings and never flew again.
“I made up my mind that planes are here to stay, but pilots aren’t,” said Maloney, who was 26 at the time. “I felt I’d already crowded my luck.”
He returned to his native McMinnville, where he was born and raised, and completed his degree at Linfield.
Then he worked for Davison’s Auto Parts for 38 years. He served as an outside salesman, calling on farms, gas stations and other businesses that needed parts.
In his spare time, he played golf, though he admitted, “I talk a better game than I ever played.”
He and his wife, Nita, married in 1946. They had five children — Tom Jr., Fay, Laura, Deborah and Tim.
Nita died in 2010, after they’d been married 64 years. The kids live in the area, along with 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.