Three of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen were honored on the 75th anniversary of when President Harry S. Truman ended segregation of the U.S. armed forces
Vincent D. Jackson was floored Wednesday as he approached his longtime hero and one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen: William T. Fauntroy Jr. The decorated airman, who was also the first Black civil engineer hired by the agency that eventually became the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, recalled details from his time as a Tuskegee Airman, including praying to his mother as he flew a plane solo for the first time and the names of former airmen who have helped him grow as a person.
“He’s such an inspiration in my own life, I’m just so honored to have met him and tell him that,” said Jackson, a Marine veteran who works at Joint Base Andrews.
As training officers made their way to a blue and yellow PT-17 military aircraft, Fauntroy was at the center of the conversations and shuffling inside one of several hangars at the air base, sharing details about his life. He repeated stories to cadets who stopped for pictures and training officers who thanked him for his service.
Fauntroy, 96, lives to share details of his life in hopes that those younger than him will feel inspired and learn from his success.
“I just love to talk about this,” he said. “It’s important that people know that a high school dropout really can amount to all this.”
Fauntroy was one of three Tuskegee Airmen honored during an Air Force PT-17 aircraft exchange ceremony Wednesday. The aircraft, which was used by Tuskegee Airmen for training while fighting in World War II, will be inducted into the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“These men are the forefathers of modern history,” said Rob Collings, chief executive officer of the Collings Foundation, which is assisting in transporting the aircraft. “These gentlemen embody what is great about America, and it is an honor to have this PT-17 headed to a national museum to continue that legacy.”
The ceremony also took place on the 75th anniversary of President Harry S. Truman signing Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, which ended segregation in the U.S. armed forces.
Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown Jr., the first Black person to lead a U.S. armed forces branch, said during a speech that successes of the Tuskegee Airmen helped to pave the way for future leaders like himself.
Achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen included completing 1,378 combat missions and 179 bomber escort missions that lost fewer than 25 bombers, a rare feat among missions. The airmen are also heavily decorated veterans, with 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, eight Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars, according to the Air Force.
Brown reflected on the life and leadership of the Tuskegee Airmen, who became lauded war heroes despite facing segregation and racism.
Midway through his speech, he apologized for being late, as he and the airmen were enthralled over lunch in hearing memories and stories from their time in service.
“Thank you so much for what you’ve done for our nation,” Brown said.
As he walked off the stage, Brown shook hands with the three Tuskegee Airmen — Fauntroy, Carl C. Johnson and retired Lt. Col. Shelton Ivan Ware — sitting in the front row.
After the speeches, Fauntroy stationed himself outside the PT-17 aircraft. The first time he was allowed to fly a plane by himself, over Alabama, he recalled feeling as if he was on top of the world.
“I felt like hot s--- on a popsicle stick,” he said.
His time as a Tuskegee Airman cemented his legacy across the nation and the Washington metro area, where he’s lived his entire life. He was born in 1926 to Ethel Vine Fauntroy and William T. Fauntroy Sr. and attended public schools in D.C.
When John Curry, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen whom Fauntroy met during his training period, saw his disorganized bed bunk, it was a wake-up call for Fauntroy to accept adulthood and discipline. He credits Curry, who now lives near Fauntroy, as a key example of the brotherhood he found among the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We understand each other in a very particular and special way,” Fauntroy said. “There’s an awareness to a part of my life that not many people can understand.”
After the Air Force, Fauntroy returned to D.C. and enrolled at Howard University in 1946 in hopes of working as a civil engineer.
There, he met his late wife, Camilla H. Bradford, who told him she wouldn’t marry him until he got a job. He eventually began work for the National Capital Transportation Agency, now known as Metro.
Once the NCTA transitioned into its new agency, Fauntroy became an urban planner for Metro, where he oversaw the D.C. portion of a rail system that would be built across the region.
While he considers the Tuskegee Airmen to be his first love, Metro is his second. His fingerprints are all over the city — through the apartments and houses he’s lived in and Metro stations he’s helped to maintain. Being recognized so close to his hometown feels nostalgic.
It also adds to the inspiration Jackson said he feels toward Fauntroy: that a D.C. native, like himself, could change the fabric of his hometown and the nation.
“It’s such an honor to see this all up close,” he said.
THE WASHINGTON POST