John “Jack” Tilford Jr. dropped out of Oyster Bay High School when he was 17. World War II was raging, and, he recalled, he and his friend Albert Taylor wanted to join the Navy before they turned 18.
“We didn’t want to get a draft card and lose our options,” explained Tilford, who will turn 94 on May 30. “We didn’t want to be in the mud and we wanted to sleep in a bed, so we joined the Navy.”
Tilford, who was born and raised in Bayville, enlisted on Feb. 14, 1944, and served for over two years. During that time, his father, John Merritt Tilford Sr., died of cancer.
To help his family, John Jr. sent $21 home each month. “That left me just enough for toothpaste,” he said, laughing.
Although he left Bayville in 1950, he left a lasting impression on the community. Tilford was a charter member of Bayville’s American Legion, Robert Spittel Post 1285, which he joined when he returned from the Navy in 1946. He is the only member still alive who helped to secure the funds to build the legion’s headquarters at 45 Bayville Ave.
The legion was small then, Tilford said. He was one of the seven members of the firing squad that performed 21-gun salutes for veterans who died. He said he doesn’t remember much about when or how the legion’s building was constructed — just his part in making it happen.
“We would take a garbage truck and collect newspapers and sell them for $14 a ton,” he recounted. “That’s how the building got paid for.”
Tilford, who lives in South Huntington, came to Bayville’s centennial celebration on March 30. He had been interviewed by students at Locust Valley Intermediate School for the 100-year celebration. “That’s where they discovered me, I guess,” he said. “I ran into two guys that I knew from the old days at the party, but I don’t think one of them knew who I was.”
He decided to drop by Bayville’s American Legion, where he spoke to Vincent Libertini, the commander. “Jack walked over to our charter and said, ‘Hey, that’s my name there,’” said Libertini, adding that he asked Tilford on the spot to be the grand marshal of the Memorial Day Parade. He had been looking for a charter member to be the grand marshal, he said, because this year was special, because it was Bayville’s centennial.
“Being asked to be the grand marshal means someone finally found out I’m alive,” Tilford joked. “Seriously, it’s an honor to be doing this.”
He held on to his legion hat for many years, he said, keeping it in a bottom dresser drawer. But when he looked for it, he discovered that it was gone. He will be wearing an American Legion hat that a family member bought for him at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. And he said he found a pair of dress pants that fit, and a blue shirt. Tilford is looking forward to the parade.
Tilford said that his ancestors from nine generations ago, Elizabeth Tilley and John Howland, were on the Mayflower. They married once they arrived in America, and had 10 children who survived until adulthood. Tilley’s parents and aunt and uncle died however, the first winter in Plymouth, Mass.
Tilford saw a map at the Bayville Museum that was drawn in 1902. There were 15 houses, and every house had the name of a family on it. He found his family’s name on a piece of property where Steve’s Pier once was, at 33 Bayville Ave.
Tilford said he can trace the Merritt family, from his father’s side, to the 1300s. And the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut is named after a relative, though he isn’t certain which one.
While growing up, Tilford said, he had to be on his best behavior, because his father owned Tilford Brothers Service Station, on Ludlam Avenue, and customers would often share what they saw the young Tilford doing.
He loved living in Bayville, he said, and has many memories. “I was sailing races from the time I was 12,” he said. “I was on the beach all the time, lived on it in during the summer.”
And although he moved after he married, first to Farmingdale and then South Huntington, he would bring his family to Bayville during the summer months.
Gail Peach, his daughter, who now lives outside Philadelphia, said she remembers summers that included sailing, fishing and swimming in Bayville Creek.
“I feel that Bayville is our roots, even more than Huntington,” she said. “My relatives were all there in Bayville. It was such a nice small town.”
World War II
Tilford was an aircraft mechanic in the Navy. He spent seven months repairing old aircraft in Memphis, Tenn., followed by another seven months in St. Louis for advanced training. Then he went to California to board a ship bound for Pearl Harbor.
Tilford said he sailed for 17 days across the Pacific, headed for Guam, where he stayed for a month. Then he went to the Japanese island of Saipan.
“When we got there, the rockets were going off all over the place,” he recalled. “The Japanese had surrendered and it was a big celebration. I was very lucky. The war was over.”
He was sent to Okinawa, where he maintained a squadron of planes. He left the service as a 3rd class petty officer, aviation machinist, on March 6, 1946. He was honorably discharged that April 23.
After the war
Returning home to Bayville that March, Tilford went back to high school, and graduated three months later.
He could have gone to college, but he said he felt a duty to remain with his mother and sister. He went to school at Stewart Tech in Manhattan for 18 months, starting in 1946, to earn a civilian mechanic’s license.
He met Adele Knoell in 1948 at a fireman’s ball, and they married in 1950. The couple moved to Farmingdale because they couldn’t afford to buy a house in Bayville.
Tilford worked for Grumman for 40 years, sometimes on new products. After 15 years he got out of the shop, he said, referring to it as a dead end, and advanced to a desk job as materials manager. He retired in January 1989.
Now the grandfather of four and the great-grandfather of five, Tilford said he still feels a connection to Bayville.
“My best memory is when we would drive across the Bayville Bridge after visiting my grandma, who had a boarding house in South Hampton,” he said. “I’d be half asleep in the back seat, but I remember the sound of the car going over the bridge. I knew I would soon be home.”