By Pamela Varma Brown
Percival “Percy” Bailey, Jr. knew he wanted to be a pilot ever since he was a little boy growing up in New York in the 1920s, when he would lie on his back in the grass watching the mail plane fly overhead.
Now 96 years old and a resident of the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i, Percy looks back at his years piloting B-17s during World War II as some of the most exhilarating flying he’s ever done.
“I left 13 planes in the English Channel,” he says, explaining that he was shot down a handful of times and also made ocean landings when his plane ran out of fuel.
“We always radioed ahead and our boys came out in boats and picked us up,” he says. “Hitler’s boys tried to catch us but our boys always beat the Nazis to our planes.”
Percy flew 52 missions during the war, more than double the number most wartime pilots flew. “At 25 missions you could quit, but I couldn’t quit,” he says.
What made him keep flying in such treacherous wartime conditions? He answers haltingly as tears roll down his face. “Well … I love … the U.S.A.”
Regaining his composure moments later, he says with a wink and a smile, “And I liked to fly.”
During the war, Percy earned two Purple Heart awards, given to members of the military who are wounded during combat — once after being shot in his rear while flying.
His military record is so impressive that he was cited for the Congressional Medal of Honor — but he never received it. “I told the administration that I wouldn’t accept it unless they gave every man in my crew the same commendation,” he says. “My boys always came first.”
I’m a Buddhist
During the war, one of Percy’s responsibilities was training co-pilots, one of whom changed the trajectory of Percy’s life.
“He was Japanese and grew up in California. During the war, no one would hire him,” Percy says. “He was a very good pilot so I took him under my wing. My wing was still pretty good then.”
This co-pilot was Buddhist, and the two men “argued for hours” about Buddhism. Eventually Percy read the Buddhist “manual” and “decided that’s what I would become. I’ve never regretted it,” he says. The co-pilot didn’t live to learn how powerful their conversations were; he was shot and killed during the war.
Percy, who moved to Kaua‘i in the late 1970s or early 1980s (he doesn’t recall exactly), became a member of the Lihu‘e Hongwanji Buddhist temple, and was so dedicated that he served as temple president for two years and held other offices over the years.
For us to get married again
In 1982, Percy was asked by a friend who was building the first Burger King restaurant on the island in Lihu‘e, to oversee things and hire the help while the friend spent a month on the Mainland. One of the people Percy hired was a lovely woman named Teresa.
“She was there two days then she had an appendicitis and I took her to the hospital. I went back every day to visit her and then we got married,” Percy says.
During their 29 years together, Percy and Teresa have had never had a fight, never even quarreled. “He’s a very nice man,” Teresa says, confirming this.
During my visit with Percy last July, his friend Jeff Schott asked him, “If you could have one wish, Percy, what would it be?”
“I’ve got several. I wish I could walk again. And I wouldn’t have any trouble flying again,” Percy replies. Then, reaching his arm out from his hospital bed and stroking Teresa’s hair, he says, “My main wish is for us to get married again.”
Within two-and-a-half weeks, Percy’s wish was granted, thanks to Dale Rosenfeld, owner of Joyful Ceremonies and Weddings. In a ceremony comprised of both Buddhist and Hawaiian traditions, in front of several close friends and family members who joined the couple at the hospital, the pair pledged their devotion to each other once again.
After the ceremony, Percy, beaming while sitting in a wheelchair in a crisp blue shirt, apologized for not having prepared a formal speech, then proceeded to tell two airplane jokes to the group.
Later he tells me how much he has loved his wife and his life, and especially how he felt when he was flying.
With tears of joy streaming down his face, he says, “I was free.”
Note from the author: Percy Bailey passed away on Aug. 12, 2014 at the age of 96 years old. His wife, Teresa, says he had a smile on his face.
- Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of “Kauai Stories,” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2.”