At the Oceanside, California Denny’s restaurant, the waitress greets a steady stream of guests by first name. Nobody asks for a menu, or needs one. One man, in his 90s and wearing a cowboy hat, shows another elderly man a new cane. They quietly discuss how it helps him get around with a bad hip. Later today I’ll struggle to match this soft-spoken, frail gentleman with the photo I find online, of a young pilot who shot down five Japanese warplanes in 70 minutes. In my mind, I’ll be matching faded black-and-white pictures with firm handshakes and crinkling smiles for some time. It’s Wednesday morning and southern California’s Old Bold Pilots Association is having breakfast at Denny’s.
The weekly tradition began in the mid-1980s with four former P-47 pilots, just an excuse for World War II aviators to get together and shoot the bull over a hearty breakfast. There’s never been a mission statement, or dues, for that matter. Nor do they host any “boring speakers.” But the roster now tops 330 names. On any given Wednesday, between 50 and 70 show up in Oceanside, some drop-ins from around the country and even across the sea. OBPA spokesman Tommy Head is one of the Vietnam generation assuming leadership of the group as the World War II numbers decline. Head was a photographer on F-105F reconnaissance missions out of Thailand and came back needing to talk. At his very first Old Bold breakfast, in 2003, he felt he could open up. “Meeting these World War II guys, I could finally talk about it,” he says. “I could get it off my chest. Man, I had nightmares for years after Vietnam. But somehow, just talking to these guys, I feel relieved.”
Historian Heather Steele’s World War II History Project website reflects the prodigious research she’s conducted for several books in progress, the first about a B-24 gunner shot down over France. In addition to tracking the history of fliers across Europe, Steele spent three years interviewing members of the Oceanside OBPA. “It was because I got to know the Old Bolds and loved them and wanted to honor them that I was inspired to write about this in the first place,” she tells me. “For me, it’s all about imagining these guys as young men and how they proudly volunteered and served. It’s about imagining a different time in this country.”
Willis “Bill” Hardy earned the title. You become an “Ace in a Day” by waking up in the morning with none and scoring at least five verified kills by midnight. During World War II, only 68 pilots qualified. Hardy was an F6F Hellcat section leader based on the aircraft carrier Hornet with no shootdowns to his credit the day the Japanese launched Kikusui, a massive kamikaze effort to destroy U.S. ships off Okinawa. “They sent down everything they could get in the air and every pilot that knew how to fly,” he says. “They didn’t need to know how to land.”
Late that afternoon, Hardy and his wingman caught two Zeros heading north, back to Japan. “They had led a bunch of kamikazes down and turned them loose on us,” he says. “They weren’t paying much attention now.” Hardy and his wingman slipped in unobserved behind them. “We gave each one a little squirt and watched them go in.”
Almost immediately afterward, they encountered four Aichi D3A “Val” suicide-bombers seeking kamikaze opportunities. Each of the Hellcats scored two. Daylight was fading fast when they received a report of a pair of Suisei “Judy” suicide-bombers menacing a radar picket ship. “The Judys had been modified to carry a 2,000-pound naval torpedo warhead underneath,” Hardy says. He soon got an extreme close-up. After flaming the first Judy head-on, “I got him burning, but the gunner in the rear seat had a big 20-mm cannon and kept shooting at me.” For cover, Hardy tucked the Hellcat under the flaming Judy “as close as I could get underneath without cutting my prop into him,” he says. Now below the arc of the cannon protruding from the rear gunner’s position, “I sat there looking up at this very large shape bolted under the airplane. It seemed like an hour, but it was probably only a few minutes.” As the Judy became engulfed in fire, “pretty soon the cannon wasn’t poking out anymore,” Hardy says. “It was pointing straight up.” He pulled out from underneath and held position on the dive bomber’s wing as the pilot tried to bail out and the incinerated airplane dove into the Pacific.
Now in darkness and with only one gun operative, Hardy engaged the remaining Judy, then circling a destroyer. He attacked, his last remaining round hitting the suicide-bomber’s fuel tank. His one-day tally was now five. For an encore, he flew back to the darkened Hornet—maintaining complete radio silence—and made his first and only nighttime carrier landing.
The second time Bill Weaver thought about dying that day in 1966 was when the rancher airlifting him to a hospital dangerously redlined his small helicopter. Weaver never trusted choppers. “Too many moving parts,” he says. The first time—just moments before—was after his SR-71 Blackbird, flying at more than three times the speed of sound, disintegrated, rendering him unconscious. When he came to, he was free-falling dreamlike from 78,000 feet as fragments of the shattered Blackbird dispersed over a path 15 miles long. “I thought, I must be dead,” he says.