Jonathan de Sola Mendes – Marine pilot whose life has been a real marathon

Jonathan de Sola Mendes ’43 (Dartmouth) is a decorated USMC fighter pilot who fought in two wars and has enjoyed a “marathon” life. At 102 years old, he quipped, “the key to living a long life is a shot of whisky a day and a good woman.”

Marine Aviator in Two Wars

Following graduation from Dartmouth in 1943, Mendes volunteered for naval flight training. He completed his training in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was assigned to the Pacific as a second lieutenant, first on Wallis and then Engebi Islands. He flew F6F Hellcats on over 100 missions and received two Air Medals for his service.

When he returned home, he enrolled in Harvard Business School in 1946, but continued to fly for the Marine Reserves. 

A few years later, the Korean War broke out. Mendes was promoted to Major and initially assigned to a unit where he trained famed baseball slugger, Ted Williams, and future astronaut, John Glenn. When their unit was activated, the three flew in combat together. Mendes recalled Glenn being, “an outstanding human being who was a terribly aggressive pilot.”

In Korea, Major Mendes flew 70 missions out of Pohang, Korea in F9F Panther jets. The missions were primarily bombing and strafing in support of ground units. His squadron flew the final Marine Corps mission of the Korean War on July 27, 1953. During the conflict, he was awarded eight additional Air Medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

After the Korean War, Mendes was promoted to Colonel, rejoined his old Reserve squadron and in time became commanding officer. Colonel Mendes served as a staff officer before retiring as a Colonel with 30 years of continuous service.

A Marathon Life

After returning from Korea, Jonathan found his “good woman” and they married. They had two children. Mendes pursued a business career in New York that included working for a small manufacturing company and later became a corporate financial consultant in mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street.

Always driven to challenge himself, at 46 he quit smoking and started jogging. He ran his first marathon at 57 and ran the NYC Marathon 16 times. He said, “every run is a challenge, and every finish is a victory.”

His most recent victory came at 96 years-old, when he became the oldest finisher of the NYC Marathon. When he crossed the finish line, he was met by race director, Peter Ciacca, who draped a medal around his neck and respectfully whispered the Marine Corp motto, “Semper fi.”

A Marine “Devil Dog” through and through, Mendes replied, “do or die!” 

As he rested up after the grueling 26-mile race, a volunteer asked if he could get him some water. He declined, instead asking for scotch and toasted his accomplishment with his trainer.

He wrote a book about his record-breaking marathon called, 26 Miles at 96 Years saying, “my aim now is to encourage others to maintain good health and have goals.”

Jonathan also had a lifelong love of skiing that began in the 1930s. He skied all over the world until he had to quit at the age of 93. He also canoed down the Yukon River in Alaska at the age of 80.

Daily exercise is one of his longevity tips, and even after reaching the century mark he goes for a 30-minute walk everyday. 

Jonathan strongly believes, “you have to have goals in life.” His goal now is to share his story and inspire others to get off the couch and add years to their life.

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