After helping build a path for Allied soldiers after D-Day, Cato built a life right here
Tam "Sonny" Cato sat in wooden-legged chair, upholstered with red and pink floral cloth.
The chair’s flowery pattern complemented Cato’s bright eyes, blooming with excitement as he talked about his 103 years of life.
Cato is always eager to talk about his life, his family attested last month at his Gainesville home of more than 70 years.
That day, he talked to a Sun reporter and photographer about a life longer than most will see — 103 years filled with a love for his family, hunting, and his time in the military, in which served during World War II as an Army engineer helping to repair roads and train tracks days after the deadly Battle of Normandy.
As a reporter began to ask Cato questions about his life, he had to listen intently to understand. A hearing amplifier hung from his ears and framed his chin like a stethoscope, and it could only do so much to help project the sound, said his caretaker, Corky Cheshire.
But though much of his hearing had been lost in 103 years on Earth, it was clear from an hourlong interview that he hadn’t lost his memory.
Cato was born in Alachua County on March 14, 1915, on a 653-acre farm owned by his father. He calls it “Daddy’s farm,” which was later sold to the University of Florida.
Cato’s father taught the ins and outs of the dairy business — a career he had planned to pursue and later did. But first, the military came calling.
Cato was drafted and was sworn into the Army at Starke’s Camp Blanding in February 1941, less than six months after the United States instituted the first peacetime draft. He thought he’d only have to serve a year and he’d be out, but the development of World War II changed that thought quickly, he joked.
“I would have been in one year, but the hell of it is, in December of that year, Pearl Harbor happened,” he said with a short chuckle.
It has been almost 77 years since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but Cato still remembers when he first he heard of the attack.
Cato said he was still stationed at Camp Blanding and heard the news after a Sunday morning of deer hunting in the Ocala National Forrest with another soldier on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We were in town getting a cold drink when (people in town) told us that 'y'all better to get back to camp,'” Cato said. “I said ‘what's the trouble?’ And they said, ‘They just bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I said, ‘Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?’”
Cato was deployed to Europe on the Queen Mary, a ship that could transport more than 15,000 soldiers, he said. Cato was in an engineering regiment and went onto the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, 22 days after D-Day to help repair roads, bridges and train tracks destroyed in the infamous Battle of Normandy.
It wasn’t a particularly cold day in France when he arrived, but something didn't feel right, Cato remembered.
"It was just an off day for all us because we didn’t know what was going to happen," Cato said. "We got our equipment off (the ship) and started inland and from there. We just followed the front line all the way through the war.
"My duties were whatever they told you to do."
Cato remembers the German soldiers whose bodies he saw floating in the water.
“We knew they were German because they’d already come and picked our men up,” he said.
Cato noted he didn’t lose any men in his platoon.
And he still remembers when he found out the war ended, he said. His face lit up with a smile like it was 1945 again.
“A captain and I were looking for some more steel beams to go on a bridge in Belgium ... and (we) passed through this little town and people were out on the street, dancing and carrying on," Cato said.
“So I told (our driver) to pull over and let's see what this is all about ... and I found somebody who spoke some broken English and said, ‘What are y’all doing?’ And they said the war ended. I told (the driver) to take the keys out the car. We’re going to celebrate.
“We stayed there and celebrated for a long time. It was a good feeling. (Europeans) felt good, too.”
His work in the military allowed him to leave the service in 1946 with four Bronze Star medals.
Before his time in the military, he met and married his wife, Emma B.
"She was a little woman. She wasn't more than 98 pounds," he said. "If she got over 98 pounds, she'd be over there and start reducing (weight)."
After the military, he came back to Alachua County, where he worked in the dairy business until a competing dairy farmer bought his equipment and cows.
Cato went to work for the state road department in the testing division, he said, before retiring decades ago.
Since, Cato said he has enjoyed his long life, never expecting to live for more than a century.
Neither did his father, who took out a life insurance policy on him when he was a teenager, he said.
“(My father) said, ‘I gotta take out a security policy on you. I don’t know if you’re going to make it very far,” Cato said.
With his wife of more than 60 years, Cato had a son, Tam Jr. He has outlived them both.
Several photographs of the family of veterans sit on shelves in Cato’s living room. His wife served with him as an Army nurse during World War II, and his son served during the Vietnam War.
“That’s my wife right there,” he said, pointing to a family photo and sporting a smile that didn’t seem to go away.
Two bucks he shot in Dixie County are mounted near the ceiling of the home, a trophy and a testament to his love for hunting.
At 102 years old, he killed two turkeys with one shot — a story his family backed up as legitimate.
A newspaper photograph of him with his “gobblers” sitting on a table in his home also bears the truth.
“I just killed them … After 45 minutes (that day), there’s three ol’ gobblers coming,” Cato said. “That ol’ gobbler saw that decoy and there they come, all three of them. And as they got close enough to kill, two of them put their heads together. I got 'em.
“And I said, ‘We’re gonna come back and we’re gonna get another one.' And we did the next day.”
More so than telling hunting tales, Cato’s pride rests with his decorated military history. He was eager to show off a framed letter from a high-ranking officer in World War II, praising him for his good work.
During his life, Cato said he’s seen “big changes” to the world, including Gainesville.
He’s said he’s seen several courthouses built. And countless roads.
Other changes have been in technology. He still remembers the first time he heard a record player and radio.
“I’ve seen a lot of progress since I’ve been here,” he said.
Nowadays, Cato said he sleeps a lot. His appetite is gone, so he eats a lot of vegetables that Cheshire cooks for him.
Cato is assisted in daily activities by his nieces, nephews and Cheshire, who admires Cato, she said.
"He's grateful to be alive," she said. "He's the most positive person I've ever met. He loves me, and he knows I love him."
Cato said to pass time, he likes to watch fishing shows on television, living somewhat vicariously through the anglers who “are always somewhere fishin’."
But Cato said he hopes to get back out and go turkey hunting in March during his 104th birthday month.
He doesn’t know how he’s lived to be 103, but Cato said he hasn't abused his body and has taken care of himself.
Cato, again sporting the end-of-the-war smile, said he’s enjoyed his life, regardless of how he has gotten there.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here,” he said. “But I’m going to have fun as long as I am.”