One of nation’s youngest WWII pilots turns 90

World War II Navy pilot John Moore loves a good joke, so he was the first to poke fun at himself for hitting a parked car this week.

“Sixty-nine years ago,” he says, “I could land a speeding Corsair on the deck of an aircraft carrier. But Sunday, I hit a car pulling into a parking space.”

Moore – once among the nation’s youngest fighter pilots – turns 90 Thursday.

“I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t gamble and don’t go swimmin’ with women, so how can I celebrate?” he joked. “And the fire marshal would put a stop to a cake with 90 candles.”

Moore represents a fast-dwindling generation of Americans: Those who weathered the Great Depression and went on to fight a war that changed the world. They’ve been called the Greatest Generation and Moore’s friends say the label fits.

He joined the Navy at 18, began flight training at 19 and was flying a F4U Corsair by 21, as part of a squadron assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La.

Moore made strikes against enemy installations and engaged in air-to-air combat. He was lucky until June 1945, when his plane was struck while attacking a Japanese airfield on the island of Honshu. He had to ditch his plane in the Sea of Japan.

“I knew I was going down and was able to alert air sea rescue. It turned out another pilot was downed not far away, so they were on their way.”

Complications arose, however. A mechanical problem prevented the rescue plane from stopping in the water. The only alternative was to throw a rope and hope Moore could catch it as the plane taxied by.

He grabbed it the first pass, but was nearly drowned being dragged through the water, and let go. “They came back by and I wrapped the rope around my wrist and they were able to drag me in,” he said. “When I think about it now, it gives me the shivers more than it did at the time.”

On Wednesday, friends and family held a surprise party for Moore, bringing out cake during a weekly fundraiser at Trinity United Methodist Church.

“It blows your mind when you think of the courage his generation showed,” said his daughter Betty Moore-Hafter. “They went through something incredible in World War II and it marked their lives. They served our country and the world and it left them with a sense of being a part of something.”