Willie Rogers, the oldest surviving member of the Tuskegee Airmen, died Nov. 18 at age 101. However, his family didn’t learn about Rogers’ place in history until four years ago.
Rogers served in the group that became the first all-Black team of aviators in the U.S. military, the initial 100th Fighter Squadron. Atlanta Black Star has reported that the Tuskegee Airmen reached its highest membership during World War II, when it enlisted 1,000 pilots and 15,000 groundsmen. The latter position is what Rogers held in 1942 and remained so humble about.
His niece Veronica Williams told the Tampa Bay Times that the family knew he served in WWII, but they didn’t learn about his airman status until 2012. She noted that the master sergeant, who worked in logistics and administration, gave credit to pilots and not himself. He felt this way even though he suffered an abdomen injury from German gunfire in Italy. It led him to a three-month recovery period in 1943.
“He would always say there were many who deserved attention more but were not here to receive it,” Williams said.
One form of recognition came from President George W. Bush, who hosted 300 surviving members of the squadron at the White House in 2007. But Rogers did not attend. At the ceremony, Bush bestowed the airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal. He also apologized for the “unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” the members suffered.
Such insults included a trophy won by the 332nd Fighter Group of the 99th Fighter Squadron that was long lost before it was ultimately returned. It was also engraved with “Winner Unknown,” according to ABS.
Williams told the Tampa Bay Times that Rogers didn’t enjoy reflecting on his time in the military due to racism and wartime trauma.
“He could give dates, names, locations of events from the war,” she said. “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.”
Rogers passed away last Friday after suffering complications from a stroke. His family remained at his side at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. His death follows those of three other members of the original Tuskegee Airmen last year. First Lieutenant Calvin Spann died at 90, while close friends Clarence E. Huntley Jr. and Joseph Shambrey both died at 91.