When he was a boy growing up on a farm in upstate New York, in the 1930s, Jack Orr got bored with chores like milking cows and preparing fields behind a horse-drawn plow.
What excited him were planes. Planes that soared in the sky. Even planes that sometimes had to come quickly back to Earth — like one that made a forced landing in the fields where he was working.
That excitement led him to make model airplanes as a boy. And then fly real ones when he grew up.
Orr’s dream came true during World War II, when he joined the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force, as a cadet in 1942 and learned to fly fighter planes, his favorites being the P-51 Mustang and P-40 Warhawk.
Nearly 300,000 Americans died during World War II. But Orr, who spent his time in the Army transporting fighter planes across the U.S., didn’t see combat — and survived. And last week, as the nation was getting ready to turn its attention to the long Memorial Day weekend, the Lakewood resident celebrated his 100th birthday.
Orr gathered with his friends and family members at Hof’s Hut restaurant, in Long Beach, on May 25 to mark the veteran’s milestone birthday.
His loved ones sang “Happy Birthday.” But after, Orr, who has dementia, surprised everyone by singing the classic song to himself a capella. Then, wearing a crown and a banner that read “100 Never Looked So Good,” he blew out a single candle on a cupcake and smiled broadly as the attendees cheered.
Orr is a member of “The Greatest Generation,” known for their dedication to winning the Second World War, defeating Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and Benito Mussolini’s Italy. About 16 million Americans served during the war — and the number of survivors continues dwindling. It is estimated that 300,000 or so are still alive.
“My father is a patriotic American who cares about his country more than anything,” said Dorothy Orr, one of his two daughters, who grew up in Long Beach. “He will be spending Memorial Day quietly at his home he has lived in since 1953 in Lakewood.”
When he was asked how he felt about his service during World War II, Orr responded angrily:
“I hated Hitler for what he did.”
Orr was born on May 25, 1921, and raised in Attica, New York, 35 miles east of Buffalo. His father was a guard at the prison in Attica. Orr got an early start in his aviation career by getting a job as a draftsman with the Curtiss-Wright aviation company. He said he missed his graduation from Attica High School because of his job with Curtiss-Wright.
He then signed up with the Army during World War II.
Orr, after intensive training, spent most of his military service in 1944 and 1945 ferrying fighter planes from Long Beach, Dallas and other locations to the East Coast for transport overseas.
Orr also trained on the C-47 transport plane. In 1945, he was getting ready for a deployment flying supplies from India to China in the Pacific Theater. But then President Harry S. Truman ordered the atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The war ended.
That same year, on Sept. 9, he and Margaret Orr, nee Doyle, married in Dallas, where he was stationed. The couple were married for 64 years, until Margaret Orr died in 2009.
Orr was discharged from full-time military service and joined the Reserves, retiring as a captain in 1969.
After the war, he and his wife moved to New York. But it was too cold there for her.
“We were listening to the Rose Bowl game and the announcer said it was a balmy 72 degrees in Pasadena,” Orr said in a previous interview on his 90th birthday. “Margaret was sitting on our stove to keep warm. So I quit my job and came to Modesto, California in 1947.”
Orr’s daughter Dorothy Orr said last week that Margaret Orr was not fond of her husband’s flying — which he continued doing recreationally — because her brother, a navigator on a bomber, was killed in Africa during World War II
“But my mother told my father she wouldn’t complain about his flying,” Orr’s daughter said, “if they moved from cold New York to a warmer place.”
Orr studied mechanical engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and later earned a degree at Cal State Long Beach.
He spent years helping build planes at McDonnell Douglas In Long Beach and working on Rockwell International’s space shuttle programs as an engineer, finally retiring in the early 1990s.
In 1953, he and his wife moved to the house in Lakewood. By this time, he and his wife had daughters, Dorothy Orr and Diane West. Dorothy Orr, who attended the Art College of Design in Pasadena and Cal State Northridge, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a pilot.
“When I was a little girl, he wanted me to help fly his plane but my feet would not reach the pedals,” she said. “So he put blocks on the pedals so I could reach them.”
West followed another path. She got a music degree from Cal State Long Beach and became a concert pianist. She lives in Huntington Beach with her husband, Gus West, and son, Eric West.
At the birthday party at Hof’s Hut, many of his friends celebrated Orr by telling nostalgic stories.
Mike Andren, for example, said one of Orr’s major hobbies was as an amateur radio operator, even serving as a volunteer on the Queen Mary station. He also said he told Orr on his 94th birthday that he had to be the most optimistic man in the world.
“You’re the only man I’ve known who bought a new car when he was 94,” Andren said then.
Orr quit driving when he was 96.
After the party, I asked Orr what he would like as a present for his birthday.
“A red Chevy,” he said with a grin.
Jerry and Barbara Crofuts, Orr’s longtime next-door neighbors, described him as quiet and friendly, someone who would always help them if they needed anything.
Dorothy Orr remembered the time when her father flew his Cessna up to their cabin in Big Bear.
“We would drive up and he would fly,” she said. “One time, we heard this buzzing sound, looked up and there was my father in his plane flying really low, powering down and yelling at us, ‘Come and get me. I’ll be at the airport.’”
Orr’s birthday party, though, wasn’t the only celebration of his life. Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose Fourth District includes Long Beach, issued a proclamation congratulating him for “reaching a milestone birthday.”
“You,” the proclamation read, “have been a witness to dramatic historical events.”
Source: Orange County Register