Just shy of 80 years ago — a lifetime by many people’s standards —Thomas Horton trained to fly in a bomber made of balsa wood.
Yes, that wood: The lighter-than-air material you buy in pre-punched sheets to assemble your kids’ toy gliders, the wood that sinks to the thickness of a saltine when you step on it.
Horton flew three generations of the World War II wooden aircraft, formally titled a de Havilland DH.98, but nicknamed the Mosquito, in 111 missions over Germany. And nearly 80 years after he left New Zealand to do it, his native country bestowed its service medal on him.
There was a sort of dual gift in the Monday afternoon presentation by Royal New Zealand Air Force Wing Commander Graham Streatfield, air attache to the New Zealand embassy in Washington, D.C. Horton received the medal, and a smaller, roughly 2-inch version of it, in time for both Christmas and Horton’s 100th birthday on Sunday, Dec. 29.
“It’s should you ever choose to wear your mess dress (formal uniform),” Streatfield explained of the miniature medal, banded in the same royal and Wedgwood blues, red and spring green as the full-size one.
Horton took the delayed gratitude in stride, inspecting his ribbons with a mischievous grin.
“My mess dress? To be perfectly honest, I gave it away to a local actors’ supply place about 20 years ago,” he said.
Horton lives with his daughter, Gail Hoddinott of Naples, who was on hand for the presentation, along with his son, Peter Horton of St. Petersburg. All three were nonplussed at the air force’s decision to award the medal nearly 80 years after Horton’s daring flights over Germany.
But the medal itself, the Defence Service Medal, has only been in existence since 2011, Streatfield explained. It was created to honor New Zealand’s Vietnam veterans, who had come home without recognition. To be fair to other veterans, the air force extended presentation of that medal to every veteran since 1945 with three years’ service.
At 99, Horton is senior on Streatfield’s list, if not his entire nation’s.
“It’s not quite as grand as the ones you have,” Streatfield acknowledged as he presented Horton with the medal and congratulatory letters from both the New Zealand Chief of Air Force and the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein.
Horton does have an impressive frame full of medals for his work, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. They are a small reflection of the danger Horton flew through.
He and his squadron in the Mossies, as the troops nicknamed the Mosquito, flew anti-shipping patrols over the North Sea to disrupt German supply lines. They flew sorties to bomb specialized targets or to lure Germans into the skies so that other Allied fighters could shoot them down.
“We thought we were doing a grand job. I didn’t realize we were actually bait until much later,” he said, with the wry chuckle of someone who is glad to have that realization as hindsight.
There were drawbacks to flying a plane dubbed with nicknames from the Wooden Wonder to Timber Terror.
“We didn’t have any guns on it at all,” he said. Mosquitoes could not shoot back. So the goal was to evade in-air confrontation, and with its light weight and zephyr speed, the Mossie was the fastest craft in the skies for almost all of the war.
“It was a remarkable aircraft,” Horton recalled. “The Mosquito started out as a light bomber, carrying four 250-pound bombs. Then somebody got the bright idea it could fly with four 500-pound bombs. So they put them on and it flew with them.”
Throughout the war, the payload kept getting heavier, the designers kept adding larger engines, adding cannons or rockets and torpedoes for ship hunting. Horton flew with them, venturing out on high night-flight missions as well aslow-level daylight work.
“The poor old Mosquito, by the end of the war, on some occasions, carried 5,000 pounds of bombs,” he recalled. He also recalled being a fortunate pilot. He only once lost an engine.
After the war, Horton stayed with the Royal Air Force, eventually coming to the U.S. as part of the NATO command. Until he moved to Naples, Horton and his British-born wife and their family lived in Alexandria, Virginia.
Jets have long surpassed the wooden plane, and there is only one Mosquito that still flies regularly, in the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. Although there may be a few fellow pilots surviving, there is also only one Horton, who still commands a droll wit.
Streatfield was to present a blue-and-gold New Zealand Air Force tie to Horton, but the neckwear hadn’t arrived on time. So in military camaraderie, Streatfield had brought his own for Horton.
“I couldn’t get you one in time. But I can get you a new one to replace it,” he offered.
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll be very happy with this one,” Horton told him, adding slyly, “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” Streatfield said, but then leaned in toward his near-centenary colleague to tease him right back. “Buy me a beer.”
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