Earl Newton Thomas, decorated WWII pilot who later flew for Delta

Some people called him Earl; others called him Captain, Buddy or Tommy; his kids all called him sir; and golfing buddies called him “the Bear.”

But everybody called Earl Newton Thomas of Peachtree City a hero, including the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

Mr.  Thomas, a decorated bomber and fighter pilot who flew dozens of missions over Germany before going to work for Delta Air Lines in 1949, died Aug. 20 of cancer. He was 88. A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Carmichael-Hemperley Funeral Home in Peachtree City.

Mr. Thomas joined the military when World War II began and soon transferred to the air forces. He earned his pilot’s wings in May 1943 and before long was flying missions over Germany in B-17 bombers as a lead pilot, guiding hundreds of planes, his family said.

Promoted to captain, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and chose to stay in combat as a fighter pilot in a P-51 Mustang when he could have returned home, relatives said.

His son, John R. Thomas of Peachtree City, also a Delta pilot, said Mr. Thomas once quipped that he’d been lucky and had declined to wear a parachute “because he wasn’t going to jump out the damn plane.”

“He was in the first daylight bombing mission over Berlin,” John Thomas said.

One time, Mr. Thomas' son said, "he thought he was going to be first back to England after being jumped by German fighters, but was last, and said, ‘The other pilots must have been more scared than I was.’”

Edgar Miller of Crystal River, Fla., his co-pilot on 14 missions in a unit of the fabled 8th Air Force, said Mr. Thomas flew in support of the Allied invasion on D-Day.

“He was a natural pilot and a natural athlete and just a great friend," Mr. Miller said. "I talked to him 10 days before he passed away and he said, ‘I’m falling fast,’ but was worried about his wife,” former flight attendant Patricia Thomas, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Still, daughter Deborah Christiansen of Roswell said, Mr. Thomas' wife of 59 years was at his bedside at the end.

“I said, ‘Mama, that’s Daddy over there,'” Mrs. Christiansen said. “He’s dying and you’re not ever going to see him again. All of a sudden, it was unbelievable. She kissed him all over his face, and said, ‘Oh, Daddy, we love you so much, you can go on up to Heaven.’”

“He lit up when he saw” her, Mr. Thomas' son said.

Mr. Thomas was born in Bluefield, W.Va., and grew up in Roanoke, Va. He skipped college but still wound up flying Delta’s biggest jets before he retired at the same rank he held in the military, captain, amassing more than 29,000 hours of flight time that took him all over the world.

Mr. Thomas also was an avid motorcyclist, traversing the country several times, Mrs. Christiansen said. And “those with whom he golfed called him ‘the Bear’ because he played like Jack Nicklaus or was always in the woods, looking for his ball and growling,” she said.

“He was just the best,” his son said, “as honest as the day is long, and brave to the last.”

Other survivors include daughters Kathleen Bassett of Milton and Mary Thomas of Roswell; three grandchildren; and one great-grandson.