AUSTIN – Until recently, Joe Joiner had not told his children that he served in World War II.
“It didn’t occur to me to talk about it,” said Joiner, who turned 98 on Nov. 7. “Everybody my age served in World War II.”
Fewer and fewer people are now Joiner’s age. On Veteran’s Day, it’s imperative to note that, of the more than 16 million members of the United States Armed Forces who served during World War II, fewer than 400,000 American veterans were estimated to be alive today, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Fewer than 23,000 live in Texas.
The Austinite did not merely serve. He shot down four German aircraft in combat. He went on to fly missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The soft-spoken veteran retired from the Air Force after 30 years total service as a full colonel in 1973.
At 98, he still works at the family car lot six days a week. He drives a 2011 Mercedes that he bought used five years ago. He works out the gym five days a week.
The day before his birthday — a simple chocolate cake on his overcrowded desk at Travis Used Cars on East Riverside Drive read “100 minus 2” — he played handball.
“I should quit,” he said. “I play so bad.”
In fact, he won 22 United States Handball Association singles or doubles national championships in his age class — he moved into another class every few years — and claimed one world championship at age 65.
Born in Plainview, where his family owned a car business, he moved to Corpus Christi when he was 12. After high school and junior college there — he played basketball, part of a lifetime of athletics — he signed up with the Army Air Corps in August 1942, but was not called up for active duty until February 1943.
Stationed in England, Joiner flew P-51s.
“I was primarily escorting bombers, B-24s and B-17s,” he said, “but also strafing and dive-bombing over France, Belgium, Holland and, later on, Germany.”
More: Days before Normandy, ‘Texas Army’ triumphed in Italy.
According to Classic Fighters of America, a history nonprofit, Joiner completed his combat tour, plus two 50-hour extensions in February 1945, with a total of 84 combat missions and 374 combat hours. He shot down two MF-109s and two FW-190s in aerial combat and also destroyed four FW-190s on the ground. He was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 10 air medals for his combat tour.
After the war, he ferried military aircraft to the “airplane boneyards” in the Arizona desert. Later, during annual trips to Tucson for handball tournaments, he visited these vast resting places for planes.
“You see hundreds of planes everywhere,” he said. “In mothballs, most of them.”
Promoted to captain and then major during the Korean War, he first trained other flyers in P-51s and F-80s at bases across the United States before being stationed in Japan for combat duty.
“The North Koreans were flying over South Korea at night just harassing,” Joiner said. “They sent us over there to stop that."
After that war, he flew F-86s in New York, F-101s in Michigan and Mach 2 F-106s in Panama City, Fla., going twice the speed of sound. He spent two years during the Cold War flying F-102s from Iceland.
“The Russians were flying their bombers, not doing anything, just penetrating,” he said. “We’d let them know we were there.”
After a stint in Virginia, Joiner headed to Vietnam, where at first he flew OV-10s as part of the forward air control.
“Those were little planes,” he said. “We’d find the enemy and call in the fighters.”
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He moved on to A-370s, lightweight fighter-bombers. With only a few months left to finish his 30 years of service, Joiner and his wife, Mona Noble Joiner, chose to land in Austin and Bergstrom Air Force Base.
“My home was in Corpus,” he said. “And my wife was from Oklahoma City. This was in between and a good place to retire then.”
Mona died in 1979. Joe still lives in the Northwest Hills home they purchased in 1973.
A couple of months after he retired, he picked up on his younger son’s idea to open a car lot not far from Bergstrom.
“We started small,” he says. “We’re still not very big. Our business has not changed much year after year.”
Five other family members work at Travis Used Cars: two sons, Brad and Rocky, two grandsons, Cameron and Hudson, and a nephew, Justin.
“Austin’s gotten too big,” Joiner said. “I liked it better as a small town. But I accept it as it is. It’s still a good place.”
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Joiner had no big plans for his 98th.
“I don’t want any more birthdays,” he said. “I’ve had enough of them.”
His days in the air were not, however, just some distant memory. About 10 years ago, Joiner received a call from pilot Doug Matthews, who had purchased a P-51 and wanted to turn it into a replica of Joiner’s World War II plane.
“I named it the Rebel,” Joiner said. “He painted my markings from pictures and put my name on it and flew it in air shows. He took me up in it when I was 90 and then in a jet fighter the next year. He called me about a year ago and said he was selling the plane. I guess it wouldn’t be the Rebel now, or maybe the new owner left it the way it was.”