Growing up on a farm in upstate New York in the 1920s, Percival “Percy” Bailey, Jr. used to lie on his back in the grass every day, look skyward and watch the mail plane flying overhead. He was smitten. He knew he had to become a pilot.
A handful of years after driving his mother, brother and the family dog across country to California in a Chevrolet at the tender age of 12, Percy made his dreams come true, learning how to fly planes at Los Angeles International Airport, back when “it was nothing but a shack and the whole place was grass.”
Now 96 years old and a Kauai resident, 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. During the war, planes carried the least amount of fuel possible so they could carry more weight in guns and ammunition.
He learned how to land in the ocean to allow U.S. military ships enough time to get him and his crew off the plane safely before it sank.
“We always radioed ahead and they’d come out in boats and pick us up,” he says. “You’d go into the bucket-like shallow waves and that kept the plane afloat for oh, 12 or 15 minutes.”
His main goal?
“I wanted to bring home our boys who were in that plane. Some of them were dead,” he says, his eyes filling with emotion. “I got them home.”
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.
“I was sitting in blood for the whole trip coming back,” he says, without a trace of pity. “The only reason I didn’t crash was the fact that I flew higher and higher because I knew if I got down low, the blood wouldn’t congeal fast enough.”
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. I flew 25 more and an extra two,” 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 USA.”
Regaining his composure moments later, he says with a wink and a smile, “And I liked to fly.”
I’m a Buddhist
During the war, one of Percy’s responsibilities was training co-pilots.
“I’d take some of them up for one hour, turn around, take ‘em down and dump ‘em out because they started vomiting in the cockpit. Boy, did it stink! So I got rid of them,” he says chuckling. “Believe it or not, we took a water hose and just flushed it all out when we got back to the base.”
But one of those co-pilots 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. He reminds new friends often during the course of conversation, “I’m a Buddhist.”
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 Kauai in the late 1970s or early 1980s (he doesn’t recall exactly), became a member of the Lihue 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 Lihue 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 and then we got married,” he says, clarifying with a smile that it wasn’t a shotgun wedding.
Speaking of Teresa, the moment she walks into his room in the Garden Island Rehabilitation wing at Wilcox Memorial Hospital, where he has been staying for the past four months, his face lights up. “That’s a hell of a person,” he says, reaching his arm out to her.
During their 29 years together, Percy says that he and Teresa have had zero fights, not even quarrels. “You know the reason? I always say, ‘Yes.’” Teresa confirms with a laugh that this is true. “He’s a very nice man,” she says.
During my visit with Percy, his friend Jeff Schott asks 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, who donated her services.
In a ceremony comprised of both Buddhist and Hawaiian traditions, in front of several close friends and family who joined the couple in the Ohana Room at the hospital, the pair pledged their devotion to each other once again.
Both wore plumeria lei and Teresa held a bridal bouquet of beautiful tropical flowers donated by Kala’s Kreations. After the service, the couple celebrated with their guests by eating chocolate cake (Percy’s favorite flavor) donated by Ko Bakery and a selection of tempura shrimp (another of Percy’s favorites), chicken and vegetables provided by Contemporary Flavors Catering.
While his guests were enjoying the food, Percy, sitting in a wheelchair in a crisp blue shirt (his favorite color), apologized for not having prepared a formal speech, then proceeded to tell two airplane jokes to the group.
He also spilled the beans that he and Jeff held a bachelor party the previous night in his hospital room. Jeff confirms that he kept Percy awake until 10 p.m.
One of the remaining items on Percy’s wish list is to receive his VA benefits. His hospital stay is covered through his wife’s Walmart benefits. It would be wonderful if a kind and knowledgeable person, willing to shepherd the couple through the paperwork-intensive process, would volunteer their assistance.
In the meantime, Percy still dreams about flying.
“You know, I’m still in the Reserves,” he says. “Every once in awhile they’ll call me from the airport and ask, ‘You ready to go back to work again?’ Lately, I tell them, ‘Do you know how old I am?’”
With a smile, he shares his secret for living a good life: “Win or lose, I’m always happy.”
Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of “Kauai Stories,” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2.”