“I’m saddened to report the news that my friend and fellow airman, Lt. William Wheeler, passed away yesterday of heart failure at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre.
“As many of you know, I took Bill and his dear friend, the late Major Victor Terrelonge, flying in the same type aircraft they first used in primary training to become fighter pilots in WWII…” Dan Taylor, "The Morning Show", WCBS-fm 101.1.
Read Dan's tribute and see the photos.
Officially, the 332nd Fighter Group and 447th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, the Tuskegee Airmen, as they were popularly known, were the nation’s first black pilots. They served in the racially segregated military in World War II, won medals, are still receiving honors and earned the collective title, Heroes, by anyone’s definition of the word—though as Dan Taylor points out in a moving remembrance of his late friend William Wheeler, these splendid pilots couldn’t get jobs with U.S. airlines after the war.
I first heard a part of the Tuskegee story as a little girl, from Daddy, as we were en route to New Orleans to bring his Mammy Lou Lou to live out her final days with us in Illinois. Before foreign au pairs and nannies, families in New Orleans turned the daily duties of child-rearing over to Mammies, many of whom even wet-nursed the white babies as Mammy Lou Lou did for Daddy and his two brothers. (Who took care of her own children? Is that why were they missing from her life in old age?)
Trips to the South always included a learning segment, lessons in cautious behavior that Daddy or Mama thought their irrepressible little girl needed, coupled with the historical back stories attempting to explain the inexplicable, like why I couldn’t drink out of the “colored” drinking fountain and vice versa. Why the Tuskegee airmen that particular day? I don’t know. Most likely, the topic was sparked by a newspaper story. Whatever, Mammy Lou Lou and the Tuskegee airmen—“some of the war’s greatest heroes,” Daddy said— were linked forever in my mind; and it seems a valid link.
I shared that story and Dan’s essay and photos with my veterans’ book group last night. We decided to read next a book on the pilots and selected from the eight we found online: Black Knights: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen by Lynn Homan and Thomas Reilly (Pelican Press, 2001.) Any other recommendations?
R., an African American man who lost a leg in Afghanistan, said, “Dan Taylor’s story of becoming friends with the two old pilots after he took them up in the plane they’d flown is very inspirational to me. In the aftermath of war, even decades later, there can be good surprises, people reaching across age and race lines to honor those who served. His respect for those men and their tradition is heartfelt.”
D.T., you are a good man. I am always appreciating you more,, and on deeper levels, than I would have guessed the first time I heard your sexy voice and sat straight up in bed.
Readers, if you would like to honor the accomplishments of those great American pilots, help introduce young people to aviation or contribute to a scholarship fund, go to the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. website.
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