WWII pilot celebrates 100th birthday with visit from 62nd OG commander

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Zoe Thacker
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Just more than 50 miles north of Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the picturesque city of Shoreline, Washington. On a street lined with cherry blossom trees, an apartment building holds much history within its walls. Not because of what is there; but because of whom.

On March 25, U.S. Air Force Col. Sergio Anaya, 62nd Operations Group commander, paid a surprise visit to an Airman who has been alive even longer than the inception of the World’s Greatest Air Force. Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. James Slaeker, a WWII pilot, celebrated his 100th birthday in Shoreline, March 26.

Upon entering the room, Anaya was greeted by Slaeker’s children and grandchildren, who had set up this surprise birthday visit. Looking past his family, relaxing in an armchair next to a proudly displayed “WWII Veteran” ball cap, sat Slaeker.

“I’m honored to be here talking with you today, sir,” said Anaya. “What you accomplished and the missions you were part of made it possible for us to continue on in the Air Force.”

Slaeker, born in 1922, grew up in Pennsylvania and worked in a steel mill before beginning his career in the Army Air Corps and later the Air Force. Upon becoming a pilot, he would go on to serve during three wars, including WWII and the Korean War. Slaeker flew several different aircraft, but often piloted the KC-97 Stratofreighter, B-29 Superfortress, C-54 Skymaster and the B-17 Flying Fortress.

“I remember walking down the street and seeing a sign that said ‘Become a pilot today! Two years of college!’ and I thought, well I don’t have any college,” recalled Slaeker. “A man came out of the building and asked if I wanted to try to pass the test he was giving to see if I could become a pilot. I passed the test and I was off.”

Slaeker was one of the many American pilots to fly supplies into West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940’s when West Berlin was blockaded by the then Soviet Union.

“When we were flying [during the Berlin Airlift], we were landing every three minutes,” Slaeker said. “We were moving so fast that if you missed your time, you just had to fly back and start over. There was no time to turn around to drop the supplies off if you missed your mark, we were in and out.”

The Berlin Airlift was known not only for the quick supply offloads, but also for having the worst weather in all of Western Europe at the time.

“It was amazing what you were able to do during the airlift because not only did you have the time limit and the traffic [of the planes], but you also had the weather,” Anaya said. “Adding the weather into the conditions you flew in must have been very, very complicated.”

Slaeker then went on to become the officer in charge of the Titan II Missile Procedures Trainer at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. Here he was responsible for setting up training exercises that covered 200 possible problems an Airman could run into while working with the Titan IIs in the area.

Anaya, a C-17 Globemaster III pilot himself, also spoke with Slaeker about his flying experiences and what role the 62nd Airlift Wing has played in recent operations, like Operation Allies Refuge and several other humanitarian efforts.

After retiring from the Air Force, Slaeker went on to teach the 6th grade for 12 years and settled down in Washington with his family.

While presenting Slaeker with 62nd AW unit patches and a coin, Anaya wished Slaeker a happy birthday and thanked him for his service once again.

“You know if I didn’t have issues with these, I’d be out there flying with you,” Slaeker said grinning and gesturing to his legs.

“We’d take you in a heartbeat, sir,” said Anaya, with a smile.