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100-year-old Granville native and WWII vet Still ‘going like sixty’

On Feb. 22, 1922, George W. Hawthorne was born at home in Granville, Illinois. It was first U.S. President George Washington’s birthday, a national holiday. Perhaps with a sly patriotic wink, Charles and Mabel Hawthorne named their firstborn for his grandfathers, George E. Bennett and W.E. Hawthorne.

W.E., founder and editor of The Granville Echo, which became the Putnam County Record, reported his grandson’s arrival on the Feb. 23 Echo back page. “They have named him George William and he will never be permitted to celebrate quietly as the nation will always be honoring the father of his country on his anniversary.”

No, sir. This upcoming “Twosday” demands fanfare.

WWII veteran George W. Hawthorne is bearing down on his 100th birthday and still “going like 60,” as folks used to say about impressive vigor. His long path has led from Granville to Hollywood to the South Pacific and back to central Illinois.

“I gotta lotta crazy stories,” Hawthorne said, laughing, when interviewed Feb. 9.

He’s a charming, voluble raconteur and an avid family historian. He vividly recalls his Granville boyhood.

The young Hawthorne family lived in an Arts & Crafts-style bungalow in the 300 block of East Front Street (a house gutted by a 1990s fire). The house was quite “modern,” boasting indoor plumbing and gravity-fed coal heat. The family belonged to the nearby Congregational church (now United Church of Christ Congregational) and backed the Republican Party. Two brothers joined George – Charles B. in 1923 (now deceased) and Gerald E. in 1939.

George and Charles attended the “old” Granville Grade School five blocks west, a three-story brick building at Main and School streets (since razed). Veterans Park now occupies the site, bordering Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The school housed grades 1-8, with main entrances on both the north and south sides.

“Girls went in one way, boys in the other,” Hawthorne noted. He and Charles faced a long trek each morning and afternoon, with an extra round-trip home for lunch. “We really walked a lot.”

“We delivered papers when we were older,” Hawthorne said. “Generally, we were riding our bicycles or we were tramping.”

His daily paper route covered Granville’s expansive west side, from McCoy Street to “Monkeys Nest” at Hennepin and Division streets. Brother Charles’ route was the more compact east side. They carried the Chicago Daily News (now defunct) and Peoria Star (now Journal-Star).

“We collected [for subscriptions], and each week we’d get the money from ‘em. We were entrepreneurs!”

The boys netted about $1 a week, which doesn’t sound like much until compared with their father’s Depression-era wages. Their father earned about $15 a week working at The Echo. Mabel had lost her teaching post because two-income families were almost “verboten.” Just $60 a month supported the family of four. But was their life all work and no play?

“We played cops and robbers, shoot ’em up,” in a then-empty field along Elm Street, Hawthorne recalled. Chicago gangsters, bootleggers and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre made headlines during Prohibition.

“There weren’t such things as cellphones. We thought it was a big deal Dick Tracy had a cellphone on his wrist! Space age!” (The comic strip detective wore a snappy fedora and a futuristic two-way radio resembling a large, square wristwatch.)

The family outing to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 “was quite an adventure for us,” Hawthorne wrote in 1997.

Didn’t the boys play other games? Baseball? Marbles?

“We had a big garden,” Hawthorne replied. “We farmed from our house over to the road. We didn’t plow the ground. … Old Gus Anderson would dig a garden for a lot of folks [with a] potato fork.”

Growing fresh vegetables was essential, although Mabel also “had lots of flowers.” They raised chickens for both eggs and meat in a coop by the alley.

“Mother was industrious with us. … We kept busy and productive,” Hawthorne said.

Hawthorne began secondary school at Hopkins Township High School (since razed). “Granville was a center of education,” he said. With its classical architecture, pergola and sundial, artwork-lined halls and third floor museum, “HTHS was something else!”

The family moved in 1937, and Hawthorne entered Ottawa Township High School as a sophomore. He drilled in the Cadet Corps, learned darkroom techniques in the Camera Club and graduated in the 144-member Class of 1940. Recently, he “inherited” the class alumni records and has tried to update the mailing list, but without success.

“I don’t know that any other grad in my class is still living,” Hawthorne lamented. “Most of my class in OTHS were doers. They learned the trades, farmed, [joined] the police. When Dec. 7 started the war, four guys of my class ‘went down.’ ”

The 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into WWII and marked a turning point for Hawthorne. After high school, he had gone to Hollywood Knolls, a Los Angeles subdivision where a maternal uncle lived – not to seek fame, but to learn a trade. He worked construction, mixing and pouring concrete by hand, before the advent of cement mixer trucks. He later learned carpentry, building and rehabbing houses, but first “The War” had to be won.

Influenced by bandleader Kay Kyser’s popular song, “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings,” Hawthorne set his sights on becoming a pilot. He signed up for the Army Aviation Cadet Program in Chicago in October 1942. Until called to duty, he worked construction at Seneca Shipyards and the new Libby Owens Ford plant in Ottawa, where he helped fabricate P-47 fighter plane canopies.

In February 1943, Hawthorne arrived at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Cadet training included “a small amount of flight instruction on J-3 Piper Cub airplanes,” along with drills, physical training and classroom instruction at the University of Missouri.

After more pilot training at Texas posts, Hawthorne received his “silver wings” on April 15, 1944, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. More training followed in Nebraska and Kansas. Hawthorne became a B-24 bomber pilot and was assigned seven crew members. At Gowan Field in Boise, Idaho, a navigator and bombardier filled out the 10-man crew, and yet more training ensued.

By mid-December 1944, Hawthorne and his men were waiting at Fairfield-Suisam Army Air Base in California for weather conditions to permit embarkation orders to fly to the South Pacific. But on Dec. 14, Hawthorne was hospitalized with an infection. A few days later, the winds aloft changed. Hawthorne’s crew and their replacement pilot left for the Philippines without him.

There was more waiting and more training. V-E Day, the May 8, 1945, Allied victory in WWII’s European Theater, came and went, while heavy fighting continued in the Pacific.

“Everything was aimed at Japan after V-E Day,” Hawthorne recalled. “The ocean was loaded with people going to Japan. Japan was gonna be nothing.”

At last, Hawthorne and his new second crew flew their B-24J Liberator out of Sacramento, California, and landed at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, on July 13, 1945. They were sent to Barking Sands Aircraft Replacement Center on Kauai Island, Hawaii, and there they sat, drinking nauseating gallons of pineapple juice on the beach, waiting to be ordered further west into combat.

On Aug. 6, 1945, word came that the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Another atomic bomb hit Nagasaki two days later. The destruction was horrific. On Aug. 14, 1945, V-J Day, Japan surrendered. After six years and millions of deaths, the Allies had defeated the Axis. WWII was over.

“That bomb stopped everything. It was a good thing in that way,” Hawthorne said.

Hawthorne had never flown a combat bombing run. He never flew a B-24 again after landing on Kauai. His service wasn’t over, however. He and his crew were conveyed to Manila in the Philippines, then to Okinawa, then to nearby IeShima Island, in noncombat roles. Pre-war construction experience came in handy. Hawthorne designed and helped build a swank officers’ club on Okinawa.

WWII made the world a smaller place. For example, arriving in the Manila depot in 1945, on the opposite side of the globe from home, Hawthorne straightaway ran into fellow OTHS student Sgt. Francis Dubach.

WWII also taught Hawthorne he was a lucky fellow. Brother Charles had been badly wounded by shrapnel as his Army unit fought to cross the Rhine River into Germany and earned a Purple Heart. George’s first B-24 crew, which had left him lying disgruntled on his California sickbed, had flown only a dozen combat missions before their plane went down in the South Pacific. Most of those crewmen were killed.

Hawthorne separated out on Oct. 29, 1946, at Camp Beale, California, and was appointed 1st Lt. in the U.S. Army Officers Reserve Corps. He served in Illinois, advanced to captain, and achieved retired status in 1966. He continued to fly small planes.

“When I stop to think about the war and me, I was in great shape with no Purple Hearts, I was never shot at, I never saw flack tear up the plane, only lost one engine on a flight over the Rocky Mountains in Idaho, and I never busted up an airplane. It had been a great experience, plus I acquired friends I treasure to this day,” Hawthorne wrote in 1997.

“I have sort of a guilty feeling when I reflect on those who didn’t come home. I’m sure God watched over me at the insistence of my mother’s and others’ prayers. I do wonder if all that ‘war stuff’ was necessary. But then again, the answer is transparent if you ‘follow the trail of the money.’ ”

Hawthorne’s post-war life has been a flurry of energetic activity in a dizzying array of fields — fresh from the Air Corps to the Ottawa Lumber Yard, then to the Pioneer Lumber Yard. He crewed on a Falcon Marine tow boat, hauling barges, and he helped drive pilings for the Evanston, Illinois, city water inlet crib offshore in Lake Michigan.

Hawthorne and three partners founded a Muncie, Indiana. photography studio in 1947. Back in Ottawa in 1950, Hawthorne built a house next door to his parents’ place. Many building, development and rehabbing projects followed over the years, among other ventures.

In 1951, George Hawthorne married Louise McCumber, an Ottawa schoolteacher originally from central Illinois. He then farmed with his father-in-law. Hawthorne built their “first real home” on 240 acres of prime black soil in Sidney. There, the Hawthornes had three sons, Kent, Kirk and Kim.

The family moved to Ottawa in 1971. George and Louise returned to Sidney in 1995. When Louise died in 2016, they had been married more than 60 years. George still lives in Sidney, but this retired jack-of-all-trades isn’t resting on his laurels.

“I’ve still got some things I’m gonna do in my second century,” Hawthorne said.

One ongoing project involves sorting, cataloging, filing and contact-printing the thousands of photo negatives he has amassed over the past 85 years – as well as digitizing images, with son Kirk’s assistance, for long-term preservation.

Hawthorne is impressed by the image quality contemporary smartphones produce. Yet he worries that today, “people don’t care about pictures.” Names, dates and places are easily forgotten, as the years pass. “I tell people, when you get your pictures, you should label ‘em. That’s the best thing you can do.”

Hawthorne credits his longevity to his active life, manual labor and proper nutrition. He’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19. He enjoys good health overall. He gave up lawn mowing after a bad knee injury in 2020, but exercises diligently on home gym equipment to maintain strength. He remains ambulatory, only lately aided by a walker.

“Keep the body moving,” the soon-to-be-centenarian recommends. “Exercise, work, do stuff.”

Hawthorne adheres to a Mediterranean diet. “A long time ago I stopped eating any sugar at all. Ten to 15 years ago, I delved into nutrition to help my memory.”

Indeed, his memory is prodigious, if somewhat selective.

“Deep breathing is important, too,” Hawthorne says. The irony is, he smoked for years – pipes, cigars, cigarettes – causing major dental problems. However, he has mostly avoided liquor.

“Drink water, drink good water!” Hawthorne insists. “The body is adaptable … but take strong booze, sugar, you can ruin it!

“Everything in moderation.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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