I’ve only met a few “living legends” during my life. William T. Fauntroy Jr., one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor recipient, is one of them. Consequently, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear him speak this past February at the Sandy Spring Slave Museum.
William Fauntroy is 91 years old, a genial, dignified and articulate man who wears the scarlet jacket with special insignia of the Tuskegee “Red Tails” of the “Fighting Ninety-Ninth” Squadron during World War II. He states that he was only 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall when he enlisted in the Air Force on Feb. 1, l944. Since then he has lost 1/2 inch. He may be short — but he has a commanding presence.
I wasn’t even aware of these first Black military airmen until many years later. Springfield, Mo., where I grew up, was as segregated as any other city in the South during the war years and for some time afterward. As a teenager I had no idea there was a separate Black USO in town, much less be aware that branches of the Armed Forces were segregated until President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948 that began the integration of all the services.
It was a film about the Tuskegee Airmen that demonstrated to viewers like me how the Army Air Corps discriminated against brave, well-trained Black fighter pilots who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country. Eventually their group received Presidential Unit Citations. They achieved an amazing record of 200 casualty-free out of 205 bombing missions as escort fighter pilots. (I imagine if you were a bomber crew member on a mission, you would hope for Tuskegee Airmen to be your escort.)
Fauntroy initially was educated in Washington, D.C. He told us that the first time he had to ride in the back of a bus was the one that transported him to Kessler Field, Miss. Segregation was so rigidly enforced that he wasn’t permitted to cross a street to buy a newspaper. After Basic Training at Kessler, he was assigned to the Tuskegee [Alabama] Army Air Field. As a prospective single engine pilot, a cadet would normally receive 10 weeks of pre-flight training, 10 weeks of primary flying, 10 weeks of basic flying, and 10 weeks of advanced flying. Fauntroy had completed basic flying when World War II ended. He was an aviation cadet when he was discharged in November l945.*
After the war, Fauntroy attended Howard University and received a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. He became the first African-American civil engineer employed by what became the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. Finally, he became urban planner for the part of the Metro system in the District of Columbia.*
Fauntroy was one of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen invited to the White House this year to share President Obama’s Inaugural celebration. While he appreciated the honor and enjoyed the festivities, he admitted the best part of the occasion was getting a hug from First Lady Michelle Obama.
I’m going to remember the Tuskegee Airmen especially this Memorial Day.
*Information obtained from a handout distributed at the lecture on Feb. 13, 2013. No source given.