By Noreen Hylsop
Dexter Daily Statesman
Heroes walk among us every day, and in Dexter one walks especially tall.
At 6 feet, 2 inches, George Cates casts an impressive shadow across his rural Dudley fields. The gentle giant is much more comfortable talking about this year's pumpkin and apple crop than he is discussing his role as a bomber pilot in World War II.
Cates, now retired from the orchard business that bears his name, was three months shy of being the legal age of 21 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
"Back then," the now 89-year-old recalls, "you had to be 21 to join or else have a parent sign for you. Mom didn't want to sign for me, but she knew I'd get in one way or another, so she finally gave in."
It was January 1941. Cates said he never imagined at the time that he'd be piloting a bomber plane, providing cover for the occupation forces as American ships made their way into Japan during World War II.
Beginning with boot camp in San Diego, Cates covered a lot of bases on his military journey. He spent time in California, Texas, Florida, Kansas and Oklahoma before being assigned to the naval base in Pensacola, Fla. In November 1943, while stationed at Hollywood Beach, Fla., Cates married his Texas sweetheart, Helen Benes. He recalls those days near the ocean as some of the best in his life.
"We'd have breakfast, and I'd go to the base; and she'd head for the ocean," he laughs. "Helen loved the ocean."
He and Helen were married 63 years before she died of cancer.
While in the Navy, Cates was schooled as a pilot and an aviation machinist and navigator. He also taught navigation skills to young recruits. In February 1944, following the American seizure of bases in the Marshall Islands, Army and Navy reinforcements were sent to Iwo Jima. Among them was George Cates and his 12 man crew.
"Our plane was a four engine patrol bomber," said the Dudley veteran, "similar to a B24."
There were about 18 squadrons on the island, including Cates' group.
"We flew cover for the occupation groups going into Japan," Cates said. "If anybody got into trouble, it was our job to report it and to do what we could to help."
Cates witnessed vast destruction from his vantage point in the skies after the phosphorous bombs were dropped.
"It was just pure devastation, and I couldn't help but wonder how many innocent victims were down there," he said. "It was very difficult to see beyond the foam of the typhoon at sea. It seemed like all we could see was foam for a time. I remember thinking how sick those boys must have been on those ships. They were being tossed all over the seas."
Cates recalls the words of an old friend, Darrell Holden, who served on one of the ships that was protected by Cates' cover.
"He told me later, 'I didn't think anybody but the good Lord was out there looking after us,' but I told him we were up there looking after him too."
Cates' military career was hardly at an end when he returned to the states following the war. He spent 21 years following his active duty as a member of the Naval Reserves. With the exception of one time during his career in the Reserves, he never flew again.
In 1951, he and Helen made their home in rural Dudley on what he likes to refer to as the "Dudley ridge." There, the family, completed with the addition of a son and three daughters, operated Cates Orchard until the couple's retirement in 1982. Peaches, apples, pumpkins, pears and more are still abundant at the orchard, but the senior Cates now witnesses the harvests from inside the home he and his wife shared for nearly six decades.
"We turned the operation of the orchard over to the kids (daughter Janet and husband, Kevin Johns) and they've taken good care of it," he says.
George and Helen Cates were able to enjoy several years of retirement before her death three years ago. Some of George's fondest memories are of a trip to Arizona where they witnessed the Arizona poppy fields in full bloom.
"It was a thing of beauty," he says, recalling some of the best times of his "fruitful" life.
Cates' crew all returned safely to the states after the war and for many years they reunited to share their stories and to watch their families grow. Over the years, the group would gather every few years and hear of each other's successes, family additions, the arrival of grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and sadly the loss of loved ones.
"Our last reunion was in 2006," Cates says. "There are only four of us left, and we're pretty spread out. It's just hard to get together anymore."
George Cates says he's no hero. He's quick to say, "It's not the pilot, it's the crew behind him, that gets things done."
But George Cates got a lot done, indeed, in 89 years. A proud and thankful nation honors his efforts, his heroism, and his heart on this Veterans Day.