Taliaferro to visiting Tuskegee Airmen: ‘You guys were our heroes’

When O. Lawton Wilkerson earned his wings as a B-25 pilot in a segregated military during World War II, the now 87-year-old thought his younger self was “the cat’s meow,” as he put it.

So the newly minted pilot donned his uniform and headed into nearby Atlanta to show relatives “how great I was,” he recalled.

“I drove with one of the guys into the city, and when I got on a bus to go the rest of the way, they made me sit in the back,” Wilkerson said, choking up at the memory. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

IU Air Force ROTC cadet Thomas Yoder, a junior, introduces Tuskegee Airmen Julian Johnson, left, and O. Lawton Wilkerson.

IU Air Force ROTC cadet Thomas Yoder, a junior, introduces Tuskegee Airmen Julian Johnson, left, and O. Lawton Wilkerson.

Wilkerson and fellow Tuskegee Airman Julian Johnson, 88, visited Indiana University’s Bloomington campus earlier this week for a Black History Month event sponsored by the university’s Air Force ROTC and the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center.

Named for their training ground in Tuskegee, Ala., the black pilots, navigators, bombardiers and maintenance and support staff known as the Tuskegee Airmen were pioneers in the integration of the military through an Army Air Corps program that trained African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. Their service has been the topic of many documentaries and books as well as the 2012 film “Red Tails” starring Terrence Howard, Ne-Yo and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Wilkerson, who had desperately wanted to fly even as a youngster, recalled the speed of flight training. “You had eight hours to solo,” he said. “If you didn’t succeed, then you washed out and were sent to some other area of the service.”

Johnson didn’t quite have Wilkerson’s longing to be aloft. “I did manage to solo,” he said. “I could take it up and down, but I couldn’t do all the fancy maneuvers. I’d never even driven a car, so I had no idea what it would take.”

World War II ended before either man saw service overseas. Both returned to civilian life; Johnson went back to school, eventually working as an engineer, while Wilkerson sold insurance, drove a bus and later retired from NBC Radio. Both now live in Chicago, and are part of the city’s “Dodo” chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, named for the extinct bird.

“If I’d have had the opportunity, I would’ve stayed in the service,” Wilkerson said. “I thought I’d try for a job in commercial aviation, but they weren’t hiring blacks at that time. And by the time they did, I was too old.”

The two men’s stories clearly struck a chord with those who heard them speak at Bloomington’s American Legion Post 18, where the crowd included more than 60 Air Force cadets from IU’s Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 215, fellow veterans and Bloomington resident George Taliaferro, an IU alumnus who was the first African American drafted by the NFL, and his wife Viola, a former Monroe County judge.

Wilkerson and Johnson

Wilkerson, left, trained as a B-25 pilot, while Johnson trained as a bombardier.

“Four men in my neighborhood became Tuskegee Airmen,” George Taliaferro recalled. “You guys were our heroes. You guys didn’t have any idea what you meant to people like me.”

Wife Viola drew chuckles from the crowd, however, when she related details of her first plane flight: Fresh out of college in 1947, she’d worked at the then-Tuskegee Institute, where a Tuskegee Airman took her up in his plane. “Scared me to death,” she said.

The Air Force ROTC cadets were equally captivated by the visitors.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” said junior Sam Graff, a cadet captain. “Last semester we were able to meet an astronaut, so it’s really awesome that ROTC and IU can help us meet these accomplished individuals, who are a part of our history.”

Lt. Col. Jason Turner, who helped organize the visit, said Wilkerson and Johnson represent a piece of the nation’s history as well as that of the Air Force.

“These cadets are never going to know a military that doesn’t allow blacks, gays, women in combat. These two men were in on the ground floor, literally, of the creation of our branch of the service and have a perspective we can’t even conceive of,” he said. “This helps create a foundation for them, our future military officers. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center director Stephanie Power-Carter, who helped organize the event, said she enjoyed watching the two men interacting with others throughout their visit.

“It was a wonderful experience observing Indiana University’s students, faculty and staff and the Bloomington community sit at the feet of living legends,” she said. “I am not sure if any of us can begin to wrap our minds around the sacrifices and contribution that the Tuskegee Airmen made, and how they transformed our lives. It was quite an experience and an honor to be in the presence of Mr. Wilkerson and Mr. Johnson.”

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