NORMAN — Thomas J. Bedford died around 11 p.m. Thursday. He would have been 95 this April. Most of us who got to know him over coffee at the local YMCA, and listened to his many stories, called him Jack or Tom. He answered to both. It didn’t matter as long as someone sat with him, sipped a cup of coffee and let him talk. Being at the Y where he could socialize to his friends was the highlight of his final days.
To many who didn’t know him, Jack was an old codger from the veterans home, confined to a wheel chair in the final months of his life, who liked to relive his past, and when he’d repeat some of them, we’d sit and listen respectfully.
Many people who walked by never gave him a second glance. He was just another old man in faded jeans, a loose windbreaker and a well-worn military cap, speaking in a weak, rasping voice. But oh, what they missed by not sharing time with Jack.
He was born in Alabama and grew up on a farm. Learning the lessons of hard work, he was fast at picking cotton and he walked three miles to school. Jack entered Auburn University with only $25. He worked part-time jobs to remain there.
Short of graduation, Jack passed the test to become a one-year student at the Naval Academy, where his class underwent instruction and testing to qualify them for duty in the Navy. Incidentally, he told me that he sank like a rock to the bottom of the pool at his swimming trial. A career Navy officer who never did learn to swim.
He was assigned to submarines — according to him, a dirty, smelly, stifling hot or very cold and noisy, cramped duty. In Jack’s words, “We got to know each other very well.”
During the Japanese bombing of Manila Bay, Jack’s sub spent the entire day on the bottom of the bay, and that night, they left in such a hurry for Australia that the only clothes he had for the next 40 days were a pair of shorts and one shirt. His clothes were at the laundry in Manila.
Short on fuel, they refueled on the way at New Guinea and pulled away under artillery fire from shore, managing later to torpedo two Japanese ships on the way.
After two patrols on the sub, where he was depth-charged at least twice, he was assigned to a LSD, a huge repair ship that pulled up to the beach, took in damaged vehicles, trucks or tanks during an invasion, fixed them while under fire and put them back into service. His ship was attacked twice by Kamikaze aircraft, but he escaped injury.
Jack served on the LSD during 11 of the 12 invasions in the Pacific. The only battle he missed was Iwo Jima. That put him in a very select group of Navy personnel, and his pride for having served in such a vital capacity was obvious whenever he spoke about it.
He also served on an oiler in the Korean War, and during one frigid storm, he fell down a flight of icy stairs and injured his back, which bothered him for the rest of his career. He often mentioned to us how much he hated the cold after that Korean winter.
Other duty included flying over the North and South Poles on separate resupply flights and, a few years later, directing a burial detachment in Oklahoma for the servicemen who were brought back to the state after being disinterred on foreign battlefields.
When I asked how he felt each Friday, he’d answer, “I’m still here.” In my imagination, Jack is still here every time I sip coffee at the Y. A participant in two of America’s greatest wars, he wasn’t just another old man reminiscing to unconcerned strangers. He gave us stories that will always remind us how lucky we were to know Cmdr. Thomas J. Bedford, a Navy veteran whose lineage goes back to relatives on the Mayflower.
If you know any veteran, please sit and listen to them and enrich your life.
Roger Gallagher, a Norman resident, is a veteran.