Dean Caswell, Austin veteran and WWII Marine flying ace, has died

Dean Caswell, one of the last Marine fighter pilot aces of World War II, died at his Austin home Wednesday. He was 100.

Caswell enlisted in the Marine Corps in September 1942 and served in combat three times in three decades: in the Pacific theater of World War II in the 1940s, the Korean War in the early ❜50s and the Vietnam War in the ❜60s. Caswell was born in California and moved to Edinburg in 1922 so his parents could work as entomologists in the Rio Grande Valley. He made butter and ice cream at a creamery for $35 a week before he applied for flight training with the Navy in 1941.

He hitchhiked to Los Angeles just two weeks before Japanese carrier pilots attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Caswell was sent to fight in the Pacific to remove the threat of Japanese air power. He fought in battles over the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima and flew over the Japanese capital of Tokyo. Marines including Caswell piloted carrier-based fighters such as the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, with its distinctive inverted gull wing design.

During World War II, Caswell was on the USS Bunker Hill and flew more than 100 missions, destroying 10 or more enemy aircraft in the air and 25 to 30 more on the ground. He was awarded the Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals. He was promoted to first lieutenant in July 1945. 

His Silver Star, which is given for gallantry in action against a wartime enemy, came out of a fight in which he and his two wingmen were outnumbered against the Japanese. He said they were attacked by 25 fighters. Caswell managed to shoot down seven of them, and his wingmen shot down 10 more.

Caswell was proud of his service and of the life he built with his family. He had seven children with his first wife, Audrey, who died 16 years ago. He married his second wife, Mary Donahue-Caswell, when he was 92 years old. He and Mary had a combined 12 children, which led to 20 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Caswell wrote books, spoke at air shows and Air Force events, and even did some flying stunts for actor John Wayne.

When people would meet Caswell, Mary said, they would tell him stories about their lives.

"He would always end the conversation with: 'Well, thank you for sharing that with me. Don't screw it up,❜ ❞ Mary said.

"He would say that to my boyfriends," one of Caswell's daughters, Cathy Caswell-Post, said.

Having a Marine Corps colonel for a dad was pretty intimidating, she said.

In their conversation with the American-Statesman, the Caswell women talked about the kind of man the veteran was. If he got word that people he knew or he'd flown with were in their final days, he would fly to them.

"He didn't want anyone to die alone," Mary said. "That was so manly, so courageous, so very thoughtful. He had so much love to do that so they wouldn't be alone when they died."

Although he lived for a century, you probably wouldn't know it. There is no old if you don't let the old man in, Bogatto-Smith said.

He loved martinis, too. They had to be Grey Goose vodka, clear enough to read a newspaper through and full of olives.

As Caswell's family held him and surrounded him before he died, he thanked his daughters for being his daughters and his wife for being his wife and said he had given as much as he could to his friends, family and country. He could not have asked for more from his 100-year-old body. He didn't think he would make it through the night, but he hoped he was wrong.