Joined by two of his three sons in the sunroom of the home he’s lived in for nearly a half century, 100-year-old Maj. Gen. Thomas F. Rew vividly recalls one of the most harrowing experiences of his life, and of his 34-year career as a U.S. Air Force officer. In 1944, America was in its third year of war against the Axis enemy in World War II, and 22-year-old Tom Rew was a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces stationed at Rattlesnake Army Air Force Base near Pyote, Texas.
Tom was flying a B-26 Marauder bomber as co-pilot on a training mission in which the aircraft was tasked with pulling an airborne target on a cable so that incoming fighter aircraft could practice approaching and attacking the target. The aircraft commander seemed to have only nominal control of the bomber but refused to relinquish his control to Tom.
“He was an authoritative commander, and he was flying erratically,” says Tom. “He wouldn’t let me touch the controls or do anything. I kept telling him, ‘Watch your airspeed! Watch your airspeed!’ Next thing I knew, he had us in a spin at 15,000 feet.”
As Tom tells the story, his son Bill, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general and former F-16 fighter pilot, interjects: “The B-26 was known as ‘the widowmaker’ because when it stalled, it would go into a spin fairly easily.” Pulling a B-26 out of a dangerous spin was difficult if not impossible.
The aircraft now completely out of control and hopelessly spinning toward the Earth, Tom knew he had to get out, but how? In those days, ejection seats did not exist. Fighter pilots had to open their aircraft canopies, climb out of their cockpits, and jump. But for bomber crews, it was not nearly as simple. Tom climbed out of his seat and managed to crawl toward the rear of the aircraft, battling tremendous centrifugal force along the way. The unknown gravity forces were literally pinning Tom’s body against the inner bulkhead of the doomed airplane. “I was fighting to get out,” Tom says.
For some reason, the bomb bay doors — the hatch where the bombs are released — did not open using the normal switch in the cockpit. Tom could have lowered the landing gear and exited the plane through the nose gear opening, but that would not have helped the two crew members in the back of the plane escape. He made his way to the back to open the doors manually so everyone on the plane would have a chance to get out. Once he reached the bomb bay doors, he went through several steps to manually open the doors. The doors finally opened, and Tom and one other airman bailed out at only 500 feet. His parachute opened successfully, but Tom hit the ground hard. He was badly bruised but otherwise unscathed, and he was alive.
The aircraft commander and one other crew member perished when the bomber slammed into the ground and exploded. “I got out okay, my parachute opened, I drifted, then landed in the boondocks of West Texas,” says Tom. “It was something else.”
Tom’s sons attribute their father’s ability to survive that day to three reasons. First, Tom was an athlete — a gymnast, a swimmer, a basketball player, and a member of the Springfield, Massachusetts, college dive team. Second, the day prior to the crash, Tom was on the flight line playing football with some of his buddies when the ball inadvertently bounced toward one of the airplanes. Tom picked up the ball and asked the maintenance crew working on the plane what they were doing. They told him they were working on the bomb bay door, and they fortuitously showed Tom an alternate way of opening the bomb bay doors. Third, and perhaps most importantly, was Tom’s will to live.
“Dad always told us, ‘The will to win is the will to live,’” says Bill, “without which he’d likely have been in a smoking hole in West Texas, and we wouldn’t be here having this conversation today.”
Tom attributes his instinctive determination “to survive against all odds” to his father, a British sailor in the Royal Navy who, during World War I, survived the sinking of three different ships that were torpedoed and sunk. “After the third time, my father left the Navy and joined the Canadian army, part of the British Commonwealth,” says Tom. “He finished his service on the ground, surviving a mustard gas attack and other perils while fighting from the trenches on the Western Front.”
Like his dad, Tom also made a choice following his survival — not to switch services but a choice as to the role he wanted to play as an Air Force pilot. Instead of going to war as a co-pilot, Tom chose to become an aircraft commander, which would afford him more control over his fate in a crisis.
Born March 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York, to British-born parents Lucy and Thomas J. Rew, Tom enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942. His first duty station was in Texas at Randolph Field, the future Randolph Air Force Base, where he worked on Link Trainers, the precursor to the modern aircraft flight simulators. He was also trained and qualified to start up and taxi airplanes.
In the summer of 1942, Tom became an aviation cadet. He graduated from pilot training in 1943, earning both his wings and the gold bar of a second lieutenant. Following a period in which he was flying twin-engine B-26s, including the near-death experience, Tom transitioned to the larger four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress, in which he had to accumulate hours before transitioning to the nearly five times larger B-29 Superfortress. Finally, he checked out in the Superfortress.
In late 1944, tragedy struck. Tom’s brother-in-law, an Army captain fighting on the other side of the world, was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. “That was hard,” says Tom. “I idolized him.”
In less than a year, Tom was enroute to the western Pacific and the island of Saipan when the news came across the wire: the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over.
The period between World War II and the Korean War saw great change for the U.S. Defense establishment and for Tom Rew. In 1947, the Army Air Forces became a separate and fully autonomous U.S. Air Force like the Army and Navy (the Marine Corps remained separate but under the Department of the Navy). Meanwhile, Tom was released from active duty in order to finish college. He graduated in 1950 and was planning on becoming a college swimming coach, but he was recalled to active duty in 1951 during the height of the Korean War.
Soon thereafter, Tom was flying the B-47 Stratojet, a six-engined jet bomber capable of striking targets with nuclear weapons deep inside the Soviet Union. He later transitioned to the iconic B-52 Stratofortress. As a B-52 instructor pilot and an operational aircraft commander, Tom served during the Cuban Missile Crisis and throughout the early to midyears of the Cold War when the Strategic Air Command’s primary focus was nuclear readiness and deterrence.
One of LeMay’s successors was Gen. Russ Dougherty, who served in the same post from 1974 to 1977. Tom knew General Dougherty personally, serving under him as a colonel and a brigadier general. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman who sincerely cared about his people,” says Tom. “He was impressive by his loyalty to the country and to SAC. He remembered everyone by name, from the wing commander all the way down to the individual enlisted airman.”
One of the more climactic moments in Tom’s career was his command leadership near the end of the Vietnam War, specifically Operation Linebacker II in December 1972, the largest heavy bomber operation launched by the Air Force since the end of World War II.
Battling North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire, surface-to-air missiles, and in some instances MiG fighters, U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers supported by Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft bombed key targets primarily over Hanoi and the industrial city of Hai Phong. In the end, 12 U.S. tactical aircraft were shot down. Sixteen B-52s were lost and another nine bombers damaged. Forty-three American airmen were killed, and another 49 were shot down and captured by the enemy.
Tom led the first wave of attacks in the very first airplane. “You could see the SAMs coming up at you,” Tom says. As mission commander in charge of the raid, Tom was positioned in the aircraft between the aircraft commander and the co-pilot in a jump seat with no ejection seat.
Linebacker II was an extremely dangerous operation fraught with risks not only from the North Vietnamese enemy furiously trying to destroy B-52s but from congested lanes of friendly aircraft. Operation Linebacker II went for 11 days in December 1972 and consisted of 741 missions. The bomber crews from different bases were flying at the same times, on the same routes and altitudes, with the same post-target turns, at night with no lights. The aircraft were flying in formation and coming so dangerously close to each other that Tom and his crew could literally see into the cockpits of other bombers.
Tom’s first wave flew from Guam to North Vietnam and back, about nine hours total, including refueling twice. They then flew again for three consecutive nights. When asked about how long they were over the target, Tom says with a laugh, “No longer than we had to be!”
Linebacker II changed everything, Bill says. The operation not only led to a realization of the necessity of a strategic conventional bombing capability at a time when the Air Force’s focus was on nuclear deterrence, but it set in stone the need for a more centralized system of command and control among all forces to manage better times, routes, altitudes, and otherwise congested aviation traffic in combat. Tom was tasked with developing and leading the way forward on both.
At three different times following Linebacker II, Tom commanded three different Air Force air divisions, each composed of five air wings. Tom retired from the Air Force in 1976. He was promoted to the two-star rank of major general that same year with an official date-of-rank being backdated to June 17, 1973.
Prior to retirement, Tom had developed a training curriculum for bomber crews who would fly from Guam to Korea, where they would strike mock targets with conventional weapons. The emphasis on conventional weapons delivery was something of a departure for bomber crews in the 1970s when the raison d’etre for SAC was nuclear deterrence.
“Seven years after Dad retired, I was in Korea flying F-16s and got tasked to join up with some B-52s out of Guam and escort them on a conventional training mission,” says Bill. “That one mission was part of something much bigger, which was all started by Dad. The real story is that years later during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, B-52s played a huge conventional role. So, from 1976 to 1990, the emphasis on conventional bombing became an absolute necessity.” And it was all because of the groundwork laid by Maj. Gen. Tom Rew.
Tom retired holding both command pilot and navigator ratings with more than 8,000 flying hours. Among his many decorations, he is the recipient of the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
When Tom and his late wife, Marie, moved to Columbia in 1976, they settled in the Rockbridge community, the same home Tom lives in today, so that they could be near and take care of Tom’s aging parents, Thomas and Lucy, living in Forest Acres. The elder Thomas Rew passed away the following year, and Lucy passed away in 1985. Tom’s wife, Marie, passed away in 1990, and Tom later married his current wife, Carolyn.
Tom and Carolyn celebrated Tom’s 100th birthday in March, surrounded by family and friends. His family includes four children — Tom, the third Tom Rew; Bill; Fred; and a deceased daughter, Maureen — and 12 grandchildren, including one deceased grandson, Will, and six great-grandchildren.
The Rew family is a storied military family with a tradition of service stretching back decades. When Tom’s “much idolized” brother-in-law was killed in 1944, his wife, Tom’s older sister, Mary, began serving as a nurse in the Red Cross. After the war, she became a professional fashion model.
Tom’s two oldest sons, Tom and Bill, are retired Air Force officers and both are graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Tom is a retired lieutenant colonel, and Bill is a retired three-star lieutenant general. Fred also served as an Air Force lieutenant for four years after graduating from Clemson, and one of Tom’s granddaughters, Kathryn, is today an Air Force captain.
Tom is still active, regularly attending church and playing racquetball about three times a week, and he still flies airplanes. At age 97, Tom piloted a Cessna 172. The following year, Tom took the controls of an old open-cockpit Stearman biplane. He was then 98. He still occasionally flies in a glider aircraft with Bill at going on 101 years old.
“The keys to life are never giving up and maybe playing a little handball,” says Tom. Handball indeed. Tom was always the base handball champion, according to Bill. At age 95, Tom switched to racquetball, which is a little easier on the body, and was seen recently playing at the nearby Fort Jackson gym.
“Dad always was the classic sports jock,” says Bill.
Tom was and is a lifelong athlete. He’s also a pilot, husband, dad, granddad, great-granddad, a dear friend to many, and he will forever be a two-star strategically defining American military commander.