Remembering Thomas V. Murphy, WWII flyer.
Thomas V. Murphy, Jr was born in Baltimore in 1922. A great-great-grandson of Terence Murphy, who emigrated from Tallanstown, County Louth, in 1863, Tom spent his youth doing what all boys do – playing ball, going to school, and, in those days, dodging streetcars. At the age of 16, his mother passed away and Tom stepped up to play a big role in raising his younger brother, the late James Randall.
A graduate of St Bernadine Catholic School and Mount Saint Joseph High School, Tom was destined for a blue-collar career until history intervened.
Shortly after he graduated high school, Tom was walking with his childhood friend, Barry Lawler, when a neighbor raced out of a nearby house and shouted, “Pearl Harbor was attacked!” Neither Tom nor Barry knew where Pearl Harbor was at the time, but they soon found themselves at a recruiting office testing to qualify as pilot candidates in the Army Air Corps. As luck would have it, the Air Corps had just rescinded the requirement for pilot candidates to have a college degree. Both passed the test. As recently as 2017, Barry claimed he copied his answers from Tom, but Barry would go on to achieve status as a fighter Ace. He clearly had an innate acumen for flying.
After flight training in the United States and a brief initial assignment in Panama, Tom found himself on a troop ship steaming toward Morocco, zigzagging across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats. From there he took a five-day, 2,000-mile steam train journey across North Africa, through the Atlas Mountains to what was then called Berteaux Airfield in eastern Algeria. In Algeria the call came for two pilots to join a unit newly equipped with the P-51 Mustang. To select from among 17 interested pilots, cards were drawn from a deck held by their colonel. Tom would draw the highest card, the queen of clubs, and with it his assignment to the 27th Fighter Group, where he would serve throughout his time overseas.
The 27th Fighter Group performed tactical missions that had Tom and his fellow pilots skimming the treetops and chimneys of enemy-held Italy and France to attack ground targets. Tom spoke infrequently about the specifics of his wartime experiences, but when he did it was more often to highlight the courage and sacrifice of others, especially those who never made it home. His family would later learn that he flew over 120 fighter combat missions during his two tours in the Mediterranean theater, earning an Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations.
At the conclusion of the war, Tom returned to the States and came under the command of the late Walt Flynn of East Greenbush, New York, who was a decorated fighter pilot from the European theater. The two became fast, lifelong friends.
Thanks to the GI Bill, Tom was able to attend the University of Maryland, where he was awarded a degree in engineering. In 1948 he married his beloved “Bess,” the late Edith Murphy. Seven children later, Bess agreed to a bold plan for Tom to join two co-workers, Jack Burdette and Lou Koehler, in starting their own engineering firm. Burdette, Koehler and Murphy, better known as BKM, opened its doors in 1968 and to this day remains a thriving, well-respected firm.
At the age of 55, Tom took up the mandolin and despite no past experience, became an accomplished player in the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra, with his wife Bess not far away on the piano. After selling BKM and “retiring,” Tom returned to college and earned a master’s degree in history, which he applied to his role as a volunteer docent for the National Park Service at the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland. He enjoyed sharing how he often had to assure young visitors that, “no, he did not serve in the Civil War.” Tom also volunteered time at his parish church and a local nursing home. He joined a lifelong friend, Leight Johnson, in a memoir writing class at Johns Hopkins University and his children are blessed to now have the 66 memoirs Tom wrote about his life. Well into his last decade, Tom worked as a volunteer with the Baltimore County Police Department.
Tom was dismayed that as time passed, so too did many of his beloved family and friends. People like Walt and Eleanor Flynn, his brother James, Barry Lawler, Tom’s wife Bess, and his oldest son David. Through it all, blessed by mostly good health, a remarkable memory, and the Irish gift of storytelling, he could often be heard saying, “It has been a great ride.”
Tom died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Baltimore on January 6, 2020, a few miles from where his life began 97 years earlier. In a corner in his home remains an Irish blackthorn walking stick that was carried to America by Terence in 1863.
Tom is survived by six of his seven children (son David passed prior to Tom): sons Kevin, Ralph, Brian, Wayne, and Miles; daughter Susan; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. ♦
This remembrance was written by Tom’s sons Miles and Wayne and his granddaughter Jennifer.
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