National Native American Heritage Month: Thomas Oxendine, U.S. Navy Pilot

During World War II, Thomas “Tom” Oxendine became the first Native American to be commissioned as a pilot in the U.S. Navy. Oxendine was a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Most of the members of this tribe have lived in Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke, and Scotland counties in North Carolina.

Oxendine was born in Robeson County in 1922. He was the oldest of eight children and grew up in the town of Pembroke in that county. As a student at the Pembroke-based Cherokee Indian Normal School of Robeson County, Oxendine completed his high school studies at the age of 15.

Oxendine then remained at that institution to pursue his post-secondary education. As part of its expanding focus on post-secondary education, this institution was renamed Pembroke State College for Indians in 1941. This official name was shortened to Pembroke State College in 1949. The college became Pembroke State University in 1969 and, seven years later, it acquired its present-day designation as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.  

It was during his college studies between 1938 and 1941 that Oxendine learned how to fly a plane through a training program in the city of Lumberton in Robeson County and obtained his pilot’s license. He quickly acquired a great deal of expertise and confidence when it came to this means of transportation.

The Lumberton-based Robesonian highlighted in a 1971 article “National Defense days prior to the nation’s entry in World War II, when Tom Oxendine was a flying hero only to relatives and fellow Lumbees in Robeson County, North Carolina, and would swoop down over the sleepy, easygoing little town of Pembroke with wiggling wings, just to let the home folks know that everything was still okay with him.”

Oxendine was still a student at Pembroke State College for Indians when the United States entered World War II on the side of the Allies in December 1941. He recounted in a 1980 interview, “I immediately enlisted in the Navy.”

Oxendine sought to be commissioned as a pilot in that military branch. As a Native American, however, he initially encountered discriminatory bureaucratic hurdles that threatened to prevent him from pursuing his airborne goal. Oxendine recalled in somewhat understated fashion nearly four decades later, “I had a little problem there for a while until I got a ruling out of Washington and of course I then received extensive press coverage as the first American Indian to go through Navy flight training.”

In November 1942, Oxendine earned his wings at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida and in the process achieved a pioneering milestone for Native Americans. The Charlotte Observer reported at the time, “During brief ceremonies Captain John D. Price, commandant of the Jacksonville Naval Air station, awarded Oxendine ‘Wings of Gold’ and congratulated him upon successful completion of flight training.”

Oxendine subsequently served in the Pacific Theater. His assignments in the fight against the Empire of Japan included being stationed on board the light cruiser (warship) USS Mobile (CL-63) as a scout observation pilot. Oxendine also took part in several battles and other military engagements. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and various other awards for his service during the war.

One of Oxendine’s more daring and dangerous wartime flights involved a rescue mission in June 1944. A U.S. torpedo bomber had been shot down right off the coast of one of the Japanese-held Yap Main Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. Since both of the crew members of the downed torpedo bomber were on the shore of one of those islands, it was agreed that a submarine — the usual means for such rescue operations — would not be able to safely make it into those comparatively shallow waters and pick up both men.

Consequently, Oxendine flew a Vought OS2U Kingfisher (a type of floatplane) to the vicinity of that island’s beach and rescued the crew members. Oxendine managed to accomplish that in spite of the enemy gunfire he encountered. He recounted in his 1980 interview, “I was caught kind of in a cross-fire, but I went in and was able to get them onto the wing of the plane and zig-zag to the area where I could take them on board, two in the back seat, and then take off and fly back to the ship.”

A couple of years after the end of the war, Oxendine left the Navy and returned to Pembroke State College for Indians to continue his academic pursuits. He graduated in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in social science and a minor in physical education. By 1950, Oxendine completed undergraduate physical education courses as the University of Southern California to qualify for a coaching career. He subsequently went back to what had become known as Pembroke State College to complete courses required for teaching certification.

Oxendine went on to briefly work as the director of athletics for Pembroke High School. In 1951, though, he returned to naval service and served as a jet pilot in various air squadrons through the early 1960s. Over the next few years, Oxendine served in a few of the Navy’s public information offices. After retiring from the Navy in 1970, he joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs as its public affairs officer. During his post-naval career, Oxendine also worked in the private sector as a marketing representative for several companies.   

Oxendine died in 2010 at his home in Arlington, Virginia. He was 87. Oxendine was buried at Sandcutt Cemetery in the town of Maxton in Robeson County. The inscription on his tombstone includes the following words: “What you can conceive and believe you can achieve.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Thomas Oxendine is available at  https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006837/00001/1j and https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/tom-oxendine-first-lumbee-pilot

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