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OCEAN ISLE BEACH—Local residents and beach visitors have probably been introduced to Thomas Woodson.
Until recently, the 90-year-old Ocean Isle Beach resident worked as a cashier at IGA Ocean Aire Market on Causeway Drive.
Although many people have passed through his checkout line, many don’t know the heroic missions Woodson was a part of more than half a century ago.
Woodson said he never wanted to join the military, but after World War II broke out in 1939, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to build up the Army in case the United States was forced into the war.
“It was all volunteer army back then,” Woodson said.
Woodson turned 21 on Feb. 25, 1941, and was required to register for the draft. He was drafted in October the same year.
Originally from Spencer, Woodson was sent to Fort Bragg in early October 1941. He was sent to Camp Croft in Spartanburg, S.C., and was part of the infantry division. After completing basic training, he was promoted to corporal and was responsible for training new recruits.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor happened on Dec. 7, 1941, Woodson knew he was in the Army “for the duration,” as he puts it.
“When I first went in, I was supposed to go in and serve a year and a day and be released and put into the reserves,” he said.
Knowing he was not going to be released anytime soon, he applied and was accepted into the aviation cadet training in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“Back in the infantry, you crawled and lived on your stomach, so to speak. You’re always out in ditches and fighting that way, in foxholes and everything else. And I just didn’t want to go through the war that way,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m gonna try to get out and go some other way because I know I’ll soon have to go overseas once war was declared.’”
Woodson stayed in the infantry until September 1942 when he was sent to Santa Ana, Calif., for classification to see if he would be a pilot, bombardier or a navigator.
“I had asked for pilot training, and I was granted that permission,” he said.
Woodson completed his primary flight training in Ontario, Calif. After 10 hours of instructor training, he completed a total of 60 hours with solo flights. After basic training, he completed advanced flying school and earned his wings and commission as a second lieutenant on June 22, 1943.
“I had about 180 hours of flying time when I finally got my wings and commission,” Woodson said.
After receiving his wings, Woodson went to Boise, Idaho, for transition flights in B-24s, four-engine bombers.
In April 1944, Woodson was sent overseas to England for his combat work. He flew 33 missions over Germany and enemy-occupied Europe.
“I guess we were somewhat apprehensive and scared also, didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said of the missions. “You always had fighters come in from Germany, fighters come in on your formation trying to shoot you down.”
Woodson was the pilot of a 10-man crew and flew a B-24 during World War II. They named their plane “TENOVUS,” as there were “10 of us,” Woodson explained.
While the crew had P-47, P-51 and P-38 escorts on each mission, the B-24 got shot at and hit “quite a bit.”
On his 19th mission, “we got shot up pretty badly,” Woodson recalled.
The hydraulic system and the rudder were gone, so they landed on the coast of England and at a designated landing slip.
Woodson said when the crew returned to their home base, they came back to find all their clothes and personal belongings missing. When men went missing or were killed during combat, the service would collect all personal items and ship them to their families in the states.
“They knew we weren’t missing, because we radioed where we were,” Woodson said, realizing they had been part of a practical joke. “Everybody knew where we were. They just took our clothes and hid them like they had been sent away.”
Woodson said the B-24 got shot at every mission, but only three crewmembers were ever injured during combat.
“They were the only ones. We all came back alive, thank goodness,” Woodson said. “A full crew returning to the states, I guess, may had been about 33 percent. It’s a rarity that a full crew get back.”
Even though he was the pilot, Woodson said it wasn’t any more pressure on him than it was anybody else.
“It’s just a job you had assigned to you,” he said. “It was hard on all of us.”
Perhaps one of the most memorable missions Woodson and his crew went on was June 6, 1944—D-Day.
“We dropped our bombs at 6:18 a.m. that morning,” Woodson said, and the troops were set to move in at 6:30 a.m.
“It was sort of overcast but we could see the surface vessels on the water,” he said. “And man, I have never seen so many in all my life. Looked like you could step from one to the other and walk all the way from England to France on the boats on the water.”
Two days later, a group of A-20s was sent to bomb a bridge that connected a peninsula to the mainland of France.
“They wanted to get that bridge out, so they got 18 aircrafts, which is very, very small to go bomb something,” Woodson said. “There were 18 of us and they said and said the minimum force penetration would be one aircraft. That meant if the other 17 got knocked down, that one would keep on going until he got knocked down or got the bridge out, one of the two.”
Woodson said although they were scared, they entered the mission flying deputy lead aircraft, right behind the lead aircraft. They had four 2,000-pound bombs on board.
“The minimum altitude for dropping bombs was 4,500 feet,” he said. “And we got to 5,500 feet and we dropped that bomb at 5,500 feet. And we could feel the concussion when the bombs went off on that altitude.”
All 18 aircrafts came back, and they successfully took the bridge out.
Woodson returned to the United States in late November 1944, where he finished out the remainder of his service in Georgia, training cadets in flying.
In September 1945, Woodson chose to be released from service and he returned back to his home in Spencer.
“At that time you had to have about 85 points to get out of the service,” he said. “I had about a 110 I think it was.”
After returning home, Woodson went to work for Southern Railway, where he worked as a locomotive fireman and locomotive engineer. He retired as a train master in July 1982.
Woodson and his late wife Nell moved to Ocean Isle Beach in July 1983 after a friend and former coworker influenced them to move down after retirement.
When his wife passed in August 1999, one of the owners of IGA asked him to come work as a cashier.
“She said, ‘Get on out of the house and come on and work for us.’”
Woodson started working at IGA in April 2001 and was there about nine years.
“They let me go because business got slow,” he said.
He also worked a short time at Food Lion in Sunset Beach.
“More or less just did some bagging,” he said.
Despite flying 33 missions with the U.S. Army Air Corps and working a day job at 90 years old, Woodson said he might consider one more mission.
“I wouldn’t mind working if I didn’t have to stand so much,” he said with a laugh.