Decorated WWII pilot celebrates 100th birthday with visit from Air Force commander

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Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. James Slaeker, a WWII pilot, talks with Col. Sergio Anaya, 62nd Operations Group commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Zoe Thacker)

James Slaeker was a young man working in a Pennsylvania steel mill when he came across a sign that said, "Become a pilot today!"

More than 75 years later, the U.S. Air Force is celebrating the 100th birthday of Slaeker, a WWII airman who fought in three wars and has been alive decades longer than the Air Force itself.

Slaeker was born in 1922 and worked in the steel mill before joining the Army Air Corps and later the Air Force, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

"I remember walking down the street and seeing a sign that said, ‘Become a pilot today! Two years of college!’ and I thought, well I don’t have any college," Slaeker recalled. "A man came out of the building and asked if I wanted to try to pass the test he was giving to see if I could become a pilot. I passed the test and I was off."

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Slaeker has since fought in three wars, including WWII and the Korean War. He was also one of the pilots who flew supplies into West Berlin in the late 1940s when the country was blockaded by the former Soviet Union.

"When we were flying [during the Berlin Airlift], we were landing every three minutes," Slaeker said. "We were moving so fast that if you missed your time, you just had to fly back and start over. There was no time to turn around to drop the supplies off if you missed your mark, we were in and out."

According to the Air Force, the Berlin Airlift was also known for having the worst weather in Western Europe at the time.

Slaeker flew several different aircraft, among them the KC-97 Stratofreighter, B-29 Superfortress, C-54 Skymaster and the B-17 Flying Fortress.

He was later promoted to officer in charge of the Titan II Missile Procedures Trainer at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. There, he set up training exercises that covered 200 potential problems a pilot could encounter while working with Titan IIs.

After retiring from the Air Force, Slaeker taught 6th grade for 12 years and settled down in Washington with his family.

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Last week, U.S. Air Force Col. Sergio Anaya, 62nd Operations Group commander, paid a surprise visit to Slaeker at his home in Washington to honor his major milestone.

"I’m honored to be here talking with you today, sir," Anaya told Slaeker during the visit. "What you accomplished and the missions you were part of made it possible for us to continue on in the Air Force."

Anaya thanked Slaeker for his service and presented him with 62nd AW unit patches and a coin.

"You know if I didn’t have issues with these, I’d be out there flying with you," Slaeker told Anaya, while grinning and gesturing to his legs.