When he enrolled at Pembroke State College after World War II, Tom Oxendine ’48 wore a flight jacket and the distinction of being the first American Indian Navy pilot. He had already earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A Pembroke native, Oxendine died on Thursday, May 27, at his home in Arlington, Va. He was born on December 23, 1922, the son of the late Thomas H. Oxendine and Georgia Rae Maynor Oxendine.
Oxendine is survived by his wife of 54 years, Elizabeth Moody Oxendine; two sons, Thomas of Lexington, Va., and Robert of Tampa, Fla.; four brothers, Robert of Lyman, S.C., Louis of Pembroke, (Chancellor Emeritus) Joe of Pinehurst, N.C, and Ray of Maxton, N.C.; two sisters, Magnolia Lowry of Pembroke and Ruth Hurnevich of Hazel Park, Mich. He was preceded in death by a son, William, and a brother, Earl Hughes.
Oxendine joined the U.S. Naval Air Corps in January 1942 and completed flight school. Before enlisting, he had learned to fly in Lumberton, N.C., at Horace Barnes’ flying school.
As a navy pilot, Oxendine took part in 33 battles during WW II and received numerous awards and medals. On July 26, l944, he defied radio communications and landed his seaplane under Japanese gunfire and in adverse weather to rescue a downed airman. For this, Oxendine received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In college, Oxendine stood out as a three-sport star and played on the heralded football teams. After graduation, Oxendine returned to serve in the jet age as a fighter pilot and flight instructor in the Korean and Vietnamese wars.
During his Navy career, he test piloted a carrier aircraft and was a combat flight instructor for the supersonic F8V Crusader. While stationed on the U.S.S. Midway, Tom recorded 177 landings at sea.
Oxendine retired from the military after 29 years and became chief of public affairs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., a position he held for 16 years. For the past 15 years he served as a consultant for American Indians and Alaska Natives with the EOP Group.
Despite never gaining the same attention as the Tuskegee airmen, Oxendine earned many honors. He was the University’s first “Distinguished Alumnus” in l967 and was inducted with the first class in the Athletic Hall of Fame in l980.
He is cited in the textbook “North Carolina: Social Studies for a Changing World.” Published by McGraw Hill in l993, the text was required reading for fourth grade students in North Carolina.
In 2003, he was recognized by the North Carolina Museum of History as one of the state’s “Pioneers in Aviation.”
At home, he was a hero, and in the 1950s and 60s, Oxendine made flyovers of the Town of Pembroke in Navy jets. It was a signal to young Lumbees that the sky is the limit.
Through the years, Oxendine was a frequent visitor to Pembroke and UNCP. He attended homecoming activities in 2009.
Memorials may be made to the American Indian, ROTC, football, basketball, or baseball scholarships at the University.