Gil Mays saved the world.
He fought and won the Second World War in the Pacific along with his comrades in arms in the U.S. Military and their allies.
He flew the TBF Avenger torpedo bomber for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific and at least once took enemy fire that blew a 12-14 inch hole in his wing.
"I put the plane into a skid and got it back to the carrier (Yorktown.) I had a five inch rocket hanging off the wing. I couldn't get it off the wing, so I had to land with it dangling there. If it had fallen off that wing, that would have been something. There was just one signal officer on deck and he brought me in," Mays remembered.
When asked if he was scared, he said, "I don't know about being scared, but I was apprehensive."
That mission was among the more than 20 combat missions he flew off the Yorktown.
Another apprehensive moment came when his tailhook failed and he wasn't able to land on the carrier. Luckily a dry lake was on a nearby island. It was a very dangerous, wheels-up landing, but "It just bent the prop," he said. However the bent propeller on a 17,000 pound aircraft was quite the challenge for the crew that retrieved the plane.
"It did just have a bent prop, but to get that off, they had to tear the plane all to pieces," Mays recalled.
Mays turned 98 on Monday. The Forest City resident is a member of Forest City's First Presbyterian Church, where many friends enrich his life.
Today the Yorktown is a museum and tourist attraction in Charleston harbor. Mays has visited and when he does, "they make such a big deal of him," his daughter Kathy Meyer said.
And how does someone live to be 98? He laughed and said, "Keep moving."
Meyer added that movement needs to be both mental and physical. He swims three days a week and friend Barbara Peterson, who has swum with him for years, is his swimming partner. He also works the daily crossword in two local papers.
He grew up in Cooleemee, NC, a mill town near Mocksville and Salisbury in Davie County. He played baseball as a young boy, in part because his family lived near the ballfield. Graduating Cooleemee High in 1938, he headed for Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk where he hit it off with his future wife, Carlene.
Since Lees-McRae was a junior college, he left in 1940 with the intention of working for two years to earn enough money to head to N.C. State. First he had to go to the Pacific and save the world from Japanese imperialism.
His time in the Pacific, his near brushes with death, his being part of that incredible effort to defeat the Japanese prompted him to reflect, "It was like anything else in life. You learn to roll with the punches."
Is that a major life lesson? Roll with the punches? He paused and added, "There are so many."
During his time on the Yorktown, he flew the 13,000th mission off the deck of the carrier. When he got back, the captain of the ship was there to shake his hand and the ship's cook baked him a cake. A banner on the bulkhead read, "13,000."
He and Carlene kept writing to each other and in September of 1944 they "had a little wedding in her hometown (Weaverville.)"
What did he like about her? "You know. We just hit it off."
The understated gentleman was reluctant to brag, but his 33 years in retirement have included many state championships in the senior games golf tournaments.
"He has a really powerful drive," his daughter said.
Admitting to often winning at the state level, he added, "I guess I'm a fair golfer."
At 95 he had a little fender bender and the state asked him to take a road test, which he passed with flying colors. He still has a daytime license, but rarely drives anymore.
He and his daughter laughed to recall the test three years ago was his first road test.
When he came out of the Navy, the local licensing official said, "If you can fly a plane, you can drive a car." Because of a scarcity of cars in Cooleemee in the late 30's, he had never learned to drive.
He laughed again. "Yep, passed my first road test at 95."
No small shakes.
And he has 41 years perfect attendance in the Forest City Kiwanis Club. The club is known for its aid to local groups that work with children. Bike helmets are a big emphasis under the direction of Dr. Chris Burley and each year the club presents dictionaries to third graders. Fundraising efforts by the club support other children-oriented work.
"It's just an excellent club," Mays said.
In addition to Meyer, Mays has a son, David, who is a practicing dentist in Little Washington, NC. A second son, Ken, died last year on his 70th birthday.
Carlene passed March 18, 2011.
Mays is surrounded by caregivers and friends. In addition to Peterson, he wanted to thank his friends at the church, the Kiwanis Club, and his swimming friends at Lifestyle. He also plays bridge at the local senior center where a few years ago he bid and made a grand slam with seven no trump.
His work life consisted of many years with Erwin Mills in Cooleemee, Erwin, and Durham. He came to Forest City in 1969 to work for Fieldcrest Mills and retired in 1986. "Social Security doesn't like me very much, but I earned it."
With a degree in textiles from N.C. State, he mostly ran yarn operations for both Erwin and Fieldcrest. He is amazed at how textile operations have changed into modern times.
He has a large rug with the Wolfpack logo in it, but one of his grandchildren appropriated it during a recent weekend visit. The grandchild is also a State grad. A wooden Wolf hangs on a nail by his backdoor.
He and Carlene attended many of the reunions on the Yorktown, but most of those vets are gone now.
"I want to thank all the people who take such good care of me," he said, including Opal Gee, a cook and companion who spends a couple of hours with him every day, including dinner. "I'm just happy to be alive."