BROKEN ARROW — His extensive flying experience wasn’t the only thing that made Virgil Domino a fitting hire for the CIA.
He was also good at keeping a secret.
And given the covert nature of the missions, tight-lipped pilots were essential.
“Sometimes we knew what our cargo was; sometimes we didn’t. Either way, if I told you, I’d have to shoot you,” Domino joked recently.
But with other secrets, the former pilot and Broken Arrow resident is more than happy to talk.
For example, there’s one Domino gets asked about a lot, especially now: his secret to a long and happy life.
On Wednesday, it was again a topic of conversation as Domino, a former Air Force major and CIA pilot, turned 100 years old and was celebrated with a birthday party.
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The event, organized by American Legion Post 110, was held at the Broken Arrow Veterans Center, with well-wishers from the community and fellow legion members attending.
Domino always thought he had a shot at a long life, he said. His parents were tough, able-bodied farm folk who lived into their 80s.
But making it to 100 is still a little surprising to him.
One thing that’s helped, no doubt, is the good company Domino keeps. He’s been a regular at Post 110 for over 20 years.
He’s a favorite there with his fellow veterans, in part because his career highlights are hard to top.
Included among them are those secret flights mentioned, which he flew during the Vietnam War for the CIA’s Air America program, and a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis that saw him poised to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia 60 years ago this October.
Farm to Air Force
Originally from Iowa — which he still pronounces “Io-WAY” in the old-fashioned rural Iowa manner — Domino went to school in the small town of Rembrandt, where he was one of just 12 in his high school class.
Most of his non-school time was spent on his family’s farm, where hard work was a way of life.
It was there — between “milking the cows and slopping the hogs” — that Domino first became fascinated by flying, playing with a toy airplane.
What role it would play in his future, though, he never guessed then.
With America’s entry into World War II a few years later, Domino enlisted, earning his wings in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot.
But that wasn’t what was needed at the time. He ended up serving as a flight instructor for B-24 bomber pilots.
After the war, Domino’s skill and knowledge of bombers would eventually lead to a more compelling job — flying for the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command.
The Cold War-era unit was in charge of most of the country’s nuclear weapons, including deploying them if the situation ever arose.
In that era, the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the US and Soviet Union always overshadowed world events.
And what that terrifying scenario might look like, Domino could picture better than most. He’d witnessed the aftermath of the first atomic bombs while stationed in Japan after WWII.
In the years since, nuclear weapons had only grown in destructive power.
In October 1962, Domino and his fellow SAC pilots were there to play a part when the incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world as close as it has ever come to nuclear war.
It happened after the discovery that the Soviets were establishing nuclear missile facilities on Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
At President Kennedy’s direction, US Navy ships formed a blockade around the island to prevent Soviet ships from reaching it.
With the fate of the world depending on what the Russians would do next, Domino flew to England, where he and other B-47 pilots stayed on alert, ready to take off at a moment’s notice.
Armed with a nuclear bomb — the largest at that time at several thousand pounds — Domino knew his orders well.
“My target was Moscow,” he said. “They loaded the bomb on the airplane, and then we sat there and waited to see what would happen.”
Ultimately, after several tense days, Russia relented and removed its missiles, ending the stand-off.
Even now, Domino exhales slowly when he thinks about it.
Few people, he said, knew how close the world had come to World War III.
He credits Kennedy for handling it well.
“He really stood up to (Russian Premier) Kruschev.”
Domino remained with the SAC for two more years, retiring in 1964 after 22 years of service.
He can’t recall what his exact plans were then.
“I knew I didn’t want to go back to the farm,” he laughed.
By that time, Domino and his wife, Millie, who was originally from Sand Springs, had relocated to the Tulsa area.
It was there, he said, that he ran across a newspaper ad from Florida for something called Air America, which was recruiting pilots for work in southeast Asia.
It sounded like a good deal to Domino.
“All I knew going in was that I’d be flying,” he said.
How he learned the truth — that Air America was an airline owned and operated by the CIA — he doesn’t recall.
For the next six years, while the war was going on in Vietnam, Domino flew transport aircraft for the CIA, carrying people and cargo in and around Vietnam and southeast Asia.
Most likely it was part of what was later dubbed the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos.
Sometimes Domino knew what his cargo was, sometimes not.
One occasion that still brings a chuckle from him was the time he was ordered, of all things, to go pick up a cow.
“We strapped the cow in and took off. I never knew what that was all about,” he said.
Domino returned to the Tulsa area for good in 1972 and since then has settled for a quieter life.
All told, he accumulated over 18,000 flight hours over his career in dozens of different aircraft.
He and Millie were married for 72 years until her death at 101.
That Domino would still be standing at 100 is not something he anticipated.
To what does he attribute his long life?
Well, for one thing, outside of a few cigars, he never smoked, he said.
Once as a child, he picked up a still-lit cigarette off the ground, he said. But “Ma smelt that thing, and boy, she took a stick to me — whacked me and said, ‘Don’t do that anymore. ‘”
The secret to a good life is a little more complicated, though.
One wise approach, Domino said, is not to go looking for a fight — a sentiment that should carry extra weight, coming from someone who once was prepared to drop a nuclear bomb.
“There’s no reason to get in a big argument over anything, politics or whatever,” Domino said. “If you want to talk to the person (you disagree with), be nice to them. If you don’t, then just walk away.”
But sometimes, like during war, a fight is unavoidable. And when in that situation, Domino didn’t back down.
“I was always ready to do my duty,” he said.
Featured video: Opening of the Broken Arrow Veterans Center