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Former World War II Enlisted Pilot Is Last of a Few

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

GULFPORT, Miss., Oct. 6, 2003 – Richard D. Beaver is one of the last of a few. And at 84 years old, he's an "endangered species" of the Silver Eagles - the World War II enlisted pilots of the sea services.

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Richard Beaver holds a couple of his keepsakes in his room at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., which includes his Navy uniform shirt with the rank of lieutenant and his enlisted pilot rank of chief petty officer. Photo by Rudi Williams

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But to Beaver, age is irrelevant. "I came here to the Armed Forces Retirement Home (formerly the Naval Home) in 1991 when I was 72. People are supposed to be old at that age, but I didn't feel old. I felt like I was about 40 or 50, and there are people here at 60 who look like they're 120," Beaver said with a hushed laugh.

When it comes to the retirement home, Beaver said, "You can't find anything like it anywhere else for the price you've got. It serves my purpose. It's great - beautiful."

As a teenager, Beaver became frustrated and disappointed because he couldn't find a job in the rural community of Fancy Creek Township in Sangamon County, Ill., near Springfield, the county seat. Sangamon County, located in the heart of Illinois, was the home of Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president. Beaver was born there on May 24, 1919.

The Navy beckoned, and Beaver took the oath of enlistment Sept. 11, 1938. "There (were) no jobs, so the Navy seemed like a good place to go," said Beaver.

He became a machinist's mate, but he really wanted to fly combat aircraft as a Navy pilot. Graduating from boot camp in San Diego in December 1938, Beaver went aboard the destroyer USS Perkins 377 and worked his way from the deck force to the engine room, which he liked.

"I made seaman first class in three years - before World War II - which was a pretty good deal," Beaver said proudly.

The Perkins sailed to Hawaii to join the Hawaiian Detachment in September 1939, the month the Nazis invaded Poland; Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and Canada declared war on Germany; the British Royal Air Force attacked the German Navy; and the United States proclaimed neutrality.

Beaver said, at first, there was just a squadron of destroyers and cruisers there, then on May 7, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Beaver was at the Navy yard on Mare Island, Vallejo, Calif., near San Francisco.

"We got underway immediately and made two convoy trips from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor," Beaver noted. "We convoyed the first expeditionary troops to the Pacific out of San Francisco."

Beaver was aboard when the Perkins was engaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Sydney Harbor (Australia). The Perkins was involved in pivotal battles around Guadalcanal and New Guinea, and earned four battle stars during World War II. The only damage the Perkins received while Beaver was a crewman were hits by shrapnel.

Beaver said he was lucky because he'd gotten off the destroyer when a damaged propeller screw caused the ship to return to Pearl Harbor from the South Pacific in August 1942. While repairs were being made, Beaver used his liberty time to take civilian flying lessons. His application for Navy flight school was approved before the Perkins headed back to war.

"They wanted to make me a (chief petty officer) before I left the ship for flight school, but I refused it because I wanted to fly more," he said.

"I'd finished flight school earned my wings when she (Perkins) was sunk in November 1943," Beaver noted. "I was flying combat patrols then what I'd always wanted to do."

Ironically, the Perkins wasn't sunk by enemy fire; it went down after being accidentally rammed by the Australian transport HMAS Duntroon. The Duntroon's crew rescued most of the Perkins crew. Some reports say one Perkins crewman died, others reports say four perished.

"As soon as I got out of flight school, I went to San Diego for assignment with the PT (Patrol Torpedo Boat) 72 patrol squadron 'the Knights of the Sea,'" Beaver noted. Operating out of Funafuti in the Ellice Islands, he flew the "Black Cat" PBY Catalinas, a squadron of black-painted aircraft that operated mainly at night against enemy shipping.

"We did patrols out of there prior to the invasion of the Central Pacific, the Gilberts, Marshalls and Enewetak islands," Beaver explained. "That took about a year, then we went through Tarawa and Kwajalein, and we had planes in the Marianas during the Marianas campaign. That took another year. Then we came back to the states because our airplanes were worn out by then."

He said the invasion of Tarawa atoll is called one of the worst and bloodiest battles the Marines had ever faced. "The reason was the tide was supposed to be in, but by some phenomena of weather, the tide was out," Beaver noted. "So the landing crafts couldn't get close to the beach for the Marines and soldiers to get off. They were about a mile out and tried to get to the beach in waist-deep water. About 4,000 Japanese were on the island and slaughtered the guys in the water."

After the war was over in 1945, he went to the Philippine island of Samar, the site of the Battle Off Samar, for a short time. From there he went to Guam, then back to the United States.

"I still hadn't been commissioned; I was still a chief petty officer aviation pilot," Beaver said. "When I came back from that tour of duty in the Pacific, they recommended us for commission because you couldn't fly in a war zone as an enlisted pilot at that time. So I became an ensign in '46 when I came back to Guam. That's when I came back to the states and I took a discharge. I wanted to get out.

"They discontinued the enlisted pilot program in 1948, and the last one retired in 1981," he explained. "Those that were already in were allowed to continued on to retirement.

"We were kind of a breed of our own, I guess," Beaver said. "They called us 'Silver Eagles,' and three enlisted pilots who were commissioned became admirals. So that's quite a history, which we're proud of."

He noted that the Silver Eagles are featured in the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla.

In 1946, Beaver folded his aviator's wings and left the Navy, but his absence didn't last long. He thought he was going to be one of the first pilots for an upstart cargo company, but that didn't work out. The company went bust and Beaver went back into the Navy as an enlisted pilot.

"I didn't even try to go back into my commissioned status," said Beaver, who retired in 1958 as a lieutenant since he'd served more than two years as a commissioned officer.

Commissioned officers are ineligible to live at the retirement home. Beaver qualified for residency because of his enlisted time in the Navy.

The same week he retired, Beaver landed a job as an air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control Center at Chicago Midway Airport. He also served as a facility pilot, flying other controllers to Springfield, Ill., St. Louis and Indianapolis.

"Midway Airport was the busiest airport in the world when I was there," Beaver noted. "Shortly after I started working there, jets came into service and O'Hare Airport (Chicago) became the boomer."

From Midway, he went to the control tower in Springfield, Ill. From there, he went to Champaign, Ill., where he retired for the second time at the age of 50. Beaver said he built his retirement home on "millionaire's row" at Lake Taneycomo near Branson, Mo. "Everybody that had retired was older than I was," he noted. "All I did was fish and play golf for a year. This old gentleman who had a real estate agency with offices in small towns throughout southwestern Missouri said one day, 'Dick, why don't you do something?'" Beaver said.

"He asked me, 'wouldn't you like to have something to do besides play golf and fish?'" Beaver recalled. "And I asked him, 'Do what? I've flown airplanes in these hills and you don't have anyplace to land.'

"And he said, 'Sell real estate,'" Beaver said.

Beaver took him up on the offer, got his license and sold real estate for more than 20 years.

"I branched off into commercial properties (the) last 10 years selling motels and hotels. I did that until shortly before I came here in July 1991," he noted. "I was 72, divorced and living by myself, so I came down here and I was in tip-top shape. But since I've been here, I've gotten hurt in a softball game and have a lumbar spinal stenosis."

Beaver said during his first six months at the retirement home, he was thinking, "I'm 72 and these guys are a bunch of old grouches around here. They always complained about everything. And I thought what am I doing here with these critters. I felt like, this is ridiculous."

Beaver said at the age of 83, his girlfriend is a year younger than he. "We're just a couple old people that really hit it off as good buddies and liked to dance," he noted. "She taught me the Cajun dance, then I taught her the polka and foxtrot, and we did some of the other dances."

His girlfriend, Clara Cross, had a stroke and can't dance anymore. "People used to admire us dancing, because we could do anything," said Beaver, adding that he visits her every day. "We'd visit her mother, who was 103, in Lafayette before she died.

"I'm going to bring her out here this afternoon to the dance. We'll just sit and talk because he uses a wheelchair and a walker now," Beaver said. "We have a good platonic relationship, which at our age, is all you can have."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmed Forces Retirement Home resident Richard Beaver, 84, chats with his girlfriend, Clara Cross, 83, during a weekly dance at the home. Beaver said the couple used to cut quite a figure on the dance floor before Cross suffered a stroke. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA Silver Eagles Association patch that's worn by former enlisted pilots of the sea services. Photo courtesy of Naval Aviation Museum   
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