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Still flying high at 100

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  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM.
                                Gleeson during World War II, in the front row at far left, with the B-24 Liberator bomber he flew, and the rest of its crew.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM.

    Gleeson during World War II, in the front row at far left, with the B-24 Liberator bomber he flew, and the rest of its crew.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM. 
                                John Gleeson smiles with his daughter, Colleen Roe, in his apartment in Kalihi.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM.

    John Gleeson smiles with his daughter, Colleen Roe, in his apartment in Kalihi.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM.
                                Gleeson celebrated his centennial birthday last August by flying a glider at Dillingham Air Field.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM.

    Gleeson celebrated his centennial birthday last August by flying a glider at Dillingham Air Field.

For most of his 100 years, John Gleeson has loved to fly, and he still gets to feel the wind beneath his wings as he glides over the North Shore every now and then.

“I just enjoy the heck out of it,” said the former World War II and Korean War veteran, who loves the sense of freedom and mastery that comes with flying planes. “You’ve got your life in your hands and you need to do it right, or you kill yourself.”

Gleeson celebrated his centennial birthday last August by flying a glider at Dillingham Air Field at a gathering with family and friends. These day, he does all the steering but has a co-pilot handle the takeoffs and landings — sort of an insurance policy — “but they never have to take over.”

Since he joined the U.S. Army at 18 immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Long Beach, Calif., native has flown all over the world. But he’s kept his feet on the ground with a successful business, fulfilling marriage, a commitment to mentoring youth and staying active in the aviation community.

Gleeson joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1980 and once commanded a glider squadron out of Dillingham Airfield. He co-founded the nonprofit Pacific Aviation Museum in 1999 and served as its director for a few years; in 2018, it was renamed the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

One of his fondest memories is of taking Disney Studio executives on the historical route that Japanese bombers flew on that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941. Disney was conducting research in 2001 for the World War II film “Pearl Harbor,” and Gleeson even showed them the locations of the radar sites and gun positions.

Gleeson has also assisted as a youth career counselor at the Salvation Army, where he became one of its steadiest donors, and has mentored students at Chaminade University. His involvement with young people stems from memories of his own struggle growing up amid the Great Depression.

“I started out very poor,” he said. “We (he and his late wife) thought we should just share some of our good life with others. I think if everybody did that, this would be a far better world. That’s called tithing as far as the Christian religion is concerned, and we tithed for a long, long time.”

Gleeson retired in 1995 after running his own company in Honolulu, John Gleeson Ltd., a mechanical contracting company that specialized in engineering and marine sales/consulting; before that, he was a sales manager with a large mechanical construction firm in Reno, Nev.

That he was successful in sales was especially gratifying, in light of his history as a severe stutterer from childhood, being bullied by classmates and becoming a high school dropout. Nevertheless, he eventually graduated from Sacramento Community College and managed to overcome his stutter with the help of Toastmasters International, which taught him public speaking skills and built his confidence.

He and his beloved wife and business partner, Barbara Jeanne Gleeson, lived in Waikiki from 1972 until she died a few years ago. She loved volunteering at nearby Jefferson Elementary School for 20 years.

Now, he resides in a retirement home in Kalihi with a good support system. He uses a walker but is largely independent and in good health, with no particular fitness regimen.

“My marriage was one of the most important things in my life,” he said.

Gleeson still deeply misses his wife and attends a month grief support group. He recently encouraged the group to meet twice a month because he thought it was highly needed.

“Until you’ve lost somebody you love, and I loved my wife for 74 years, it’s very, very difficult. You can’t understand it till you go through it,” he said.

The Gleesons have three daughters, six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, whom they would often visit across the mainland.

“He’s an incredible role model,” said Katie Forman of Seattle, a grandchild who is very close to him. “He just taught us to work for what you have; he’s very independent, he never asked for help from anybody. He just taught us how important it was to be loyal and honest and trustworthy.”

Forman said she got to know her grandfather mostly through letters from her grandmother, and stories he’d write about his experiences from the 1920’s to the ’70s. He wrote about 30 of what Forman calls “epistles,” including “some wild stories” about machine guns in Germany, and dancing with a famous Hollywood actress during a welcome-­home military event. One year, Forman and a cousin gathered these family legends in a journal they gave to relatives for Christmas.

Gleeson, who usually wears a baseball cap adorned with a logo of the B-24 Liberator he flew in World War II, readily recalled his wartime exploits. He told about his role in a top secret mission called Operation Carpetbagger, which brought in explosives to aid the Norway underground resistance fighters in Norway in 1944 before D-Day operations. He was dressed in civilian clothes and flew in an unmarked plane that he didn’t know held explosives, he remembered.

He is looking forward to joining other World War II veterans from all over the nation on June 6 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the massive invasion by Allied troops in Normandy, France. The epic battle was pivotal in liberating Europe from Axis forces.

Gleeson attributed his long, satisfying life to “a wonderful marriage” and the Christian faith that was an integral part of their lives.

“I’ve had a life that every person in the world would like to have. We’ve flown around the world first class — I’ve got about eight expired passports.

“I’ve been shot at a lot of times — that kind of catches your attention,” he said, chuckling, “and I have a good sense of humor!

“I wasn’t anything special. I was just another guy, but I tried very hard to achieve what I did achieve, and I have a pretty good reputation. I’d do it all over again.”

WATCH IT

To watch John Gleeson celebrate his 100th birthday flying a glider at Dillingham Air Field, go to youtube.com/watch?v=ryp6Sj3_Zss. Video courtesy Civil Air Patrol.

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