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Mendota WWII veteran relives youth on Avenger torpedo bomber

Jim Lair talks about flying in the Navy in a TBM Avenger, like this one owned by Brad Deckert', who keeps his at the Illinois Valley Regional Airport in Peru. Lair served as an Avenger radar/radio operator in 1944 to 1945, but never saw combat. He hadn't been inside an Avenger since then —
until Deckert said he could give Lair a ride in his plane. | Scott Anderson/NewsTribune, distributed by the Associated Press

MENDOTA — Jim Lair of Mendota hadn’t been inside a Avenger torpedo bomber since December 1945.

“I never thought I’d ever be able to go up in one again,” he said. “A great plane.”

But that opportunity arrived recently.

Pilot Brad Deckert of Eureka said he could give Lair a ride in his plane, which he keeps at Illinois Valley Regional Airport in Peru.

“It felt like old times,” Lair said, “and brought back a lot of memories of guys that I was flying with in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and out on the carrier, too.”

Lair was the radio and radar operator on the Avenger, which carried a crew of three.

“My job was to take care of the radio and the radar and call out to the pilot what our distance was from the target, so he would know when to drop the torpedo,” Lair said.

“I had a little window on each side — very small — and one out the back.”

Jim Lair is strapped into Brad Deckert’s TBM Avenger at the  Illinois Valley Regional Airport in Peru, Ill. During WWII, Lair, 90, usually rode below as the radio operator on the Avenger, which held three crew members. But this time, he opted for the gunn
Jim Lair is strapped into Brad Deckert’s TBM Avenger at the Illinois Valley Regional Airport in Peru, Ill. During WWII, Lair, 90, usually rode below as the radio operator on the Avenger, which held three crew members. But this time, he opted for the gunner’s seat, which had a better view. | Scott Anderson/NewsTribune, distributed by the Associated Press

For this flight he opted to ride behind the pilot, in the gunner’s position, where he would have a better view.

There’s no door for that area, said his son Bill of Charleston, so Lair had to climb up on the wing to get into his seat.

“It was not easy for a 90-year-old to do,” Bill said, “but he did it.”

Bill said he enjoyed watching his dad go up in the plane.

“It was special for me to see the look on his face and how appreciative he was of the opportunity and all of the people who made it happen,” Bill said. “They just did it because they wanted to help a veteran get a chance to relive part of his youth.”

Lair enlisted in the Navy in 1944 after graduating high school — at age 17, with parental consent. His two older brothers were in the Navy and served on aircraft carriers, but Jim didn’t leave the states. He was stationed in Rhode Island and Florida, and was still in training when the war ended.

His time on an aircraft carrier was brief, but memorable.

Three members of his squadron went on a training flight with a group of Marine Corps pilots.

“They had to get some hours in to get their flight pay (for the month),” Lair said.

The five Avengers started off in formation, with plans to switch the lead pilot at various points in the flight.

But at some point, something went wrong with the navigation system in all five planes.

“Something happened, we don’t know what. I don’t see how they could all get so screwed up that they didn’t have the right combination. . . . Nobody knew where they were. They didn’t know,” Lair said. “The last call we had, they said they had about 28 more minutes of gas. They didn’t know if they were over the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.”

Lair was among those who searched for the missing men.

“We went out looking for them on a carrier — first time I’d been on a carrier,” he said.

Taking off from the carrier, he said, planes would go from zero to 70 mph “by the drop of a hat.”

He was told to hold on tight to a handrail, which he did while waiting through a delay in launching the plane. “I began to release my grip on the bar, and about that time — boom! — we’re up in the air,” he said. “I did have enough grip on the bar that I didn’t get a broken back or a broken neck. It does jolt you.

“That was about 70 years ago.”

In 1946, Lair was given the option to leave the service halfway through his four-year term or sign on for another four years.

“I was married at the time and had a baby on the way, and decided to take the discharge,” he said, “and sign on to go to college on the GI Bill and start my life.”

Jim and his wife, Margaret, raised five children in Ottawa and moved to Mendota four years ago, where they now live closer to their daughter Barb Bokus.