Thomas William Hardy, of Columbus, Mississippi, passed away earlier this month. He was 93.
Only weeks before his death, Hardy climbed into his sail plane for one last flight; logging the last hour in a flight record opened nearly eight decades before.
A 1939 graduate of Mississippi State, Hardy put his degree in Mechanical Engineering and his love of flying to work together as an experimental test engineer with the Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Corporation.
When his nation went to war, he went with it.
Flying F-4U Corsairs with the famed "Checkerboards" of Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 312, Hardy was credited with three official victories against Japanese pilots.
Like most in his generation, Hardy was circumspect about his wartime experience. He was not, however, bashful about his love of flying.
His octogenarian aerial adventures in the skies over Mississippi are the stuff of local legend. One newspaperman in his hometown went as far as to call Hardy, "the Edmund Hillary of Mississippi." Most who knew of his sail plane sorties were unaware that his time in the air also included time logged in mortal combat during a war fought when he and his nation were much younger and the battle lines were drawn between America and its enemies -- not between Americans.
The Colonel had the good fortune to meet Tom Hardy eight or ten years ago. The Colonel's father and buddies have for many years held a Sunday afternoon sporting clays match in which Hardy was a frequent participant. At one such outing, the Colonel was introduced to an elderly, yet spry, gentleman with, "this is Tom Hardy. He was a Marine fighter pilot in World War Two."
The Colonel began to launch into a practiced spiel reserved for Marines from generations before his own, wherein he thanks the older veterans for their legendary service that "makes being a Marine such an honor today."
Hardy didn't allow the Colonel to finish, "We're here to shoot. Let's shoot."
Men like Tom Hardy are a rare commodity. They are quietly heroic, living their lives with more purpose and energy than a dozen lesser men who believe, and pronounce, themselves superior.
Semper Fidelis, First Lieutenant Thomas William Hardy, USMC.
The Colonel will insist on finishing his homage when we meet again.
Then, you can give the Colonel some flight lessons.