In memoriam: Willie Rogers, oldest of history-making Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the US military, served in all-black units at a time of racial segregation in the military. Many faced discrimination at home upon their return. 

Scott Keeler/AP
In this Feb. 23, 2015, photo, Willie Rogers reflects on his service and his life at home ahead of his 100th birthday, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Rogers, the oldest surviving member of the original Tuskegee Airmen, has passed away at the age of 101.

Willie N. Rogers, the oldest surviving member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots to serve in the still-segregated US armed forces during World War II, passed away on Friday at the age of 101.

While Rogers, a master sergeant, is remembered by his Florida community as a World War II hero, with his picture hanging in the St. Petersburg Museum of History. His family remembers him as a humble man who aimed to treat everyone with dignity, pride and integrity.

"He recognized that we as people and he as a black man have come a long way but that there is still more to go," Rogers' daughter, Veronica Williams, told the Tampa Bay Times. "But in God's eyes there is no color, he'd say. We are all one and he lived by the greatest commandment – to love one another."

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American military pilots who, along with the team of navigators, mechanics, crew chiefs, nurses, and other support personnel, comprised the first black Air Force unit at a time when the United States was still under Jim Crow laws, and the military strictly segregated.

For many years the Airmen’s achievements went unrecognized for that very reason.

It was not until 2007, more than 60 years after the war, that then-President George W. Bush awarded the surviving Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Medal of Honor "to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities," and to acknowledge their accomplishments both in the air, and in overcoming racial injustice.

"(My father) flew with a group of brave young men who endured difficult times in the defense of our country. Yet for all they sacrificed and all they lost, in a way they were very fortunate," Mr. Bush said at the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, according to the American Forces Press Service. "They never had the burden of having their every mission, their every success, their every failure viewed through the color of their skin;... nobody refused their salutes."

Rogers, however – who kept his part in the Tsukegee Airmen a secret, even from his family, until 2012 – was not at the ceremony, the Tampa Bay Times reports. After opening up about his role as a Tuskegee airman, he received his Congressional Gold Medal in 2013.

He kept silent, in part, because his role was not in the sky but on the ground, running logistics and doing administrative work. According to Williams, her father felt that others deserved the recognition more than he did.

During a mission in Italy, however, he was shot by German forces in 1943. After several months recuperating in London, he returned to service in Europe. 

"He could give dates, names, locations of events from the war," Williams told the Tampa Bay Times. "But he didn't like to give specifics about what occurred to him. He saw things that were bad. And he experienced treatment because he was African-American that wasn't fair."

Last year, first lady Michelle Obama also paid homage to the airmen in a commencement address for 2015 graduates of Tuskegee University, still one of the best-rated historically black colleges in the United States. She spoke of the discrimination the airmen faced, and of how people of color today are still forced to combat racism, but also how much the nation has progressed.

In her address, Mrs. Obama said:

Just think about what that must have been like for those young men.  Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day -- flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart.  Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody -- as if their very existence meant nothing.

Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military.  They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely -- surely -- they could eat at a lunch counter together.  Surely their kids could go to school together." 

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