As many as 19,000 pilots and other personnel are believed to have participated in the so-called “Tuskegee Experience,” which trained African-American men and women for military service from 1941 to 1949 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Though the exact number of Tuskegee Airmen—as those in the program were dubbed—is unknown, members of the pioneering group took part in a total of some 15,000 combat missions, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, while combating racism and prejudice at home and abroad.
The fighter groups most closely associated with the Tuskegee Airmen, especially the 99th and the 332nd, are considered among the most proficient Army Air Corps squadrons to have served in World War II. Among the most famous Airmen was Benjamin O. Davis Jr., one of the original 13 Tuskegee cadets, who would become the Air Force’s first black general.
Tuskegee Airman Luther Smith (Video) – WWII veteran Luther Smith flew with the all-black Tuskegee Airmen squadron.
Clarence Huntley Jr. and Joseph Shambrey, the two Airmen who died on January 5 at their respective homes at the age of 91, ran track together in the 1930s while growing up in the same Los Angeles neighborhood. They enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the tender age of 19 and were shipped to Italy two years later with the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. Both men worked as plane mechanics, helping to keep the combat planes of the squadron in the air until their mission was over.
According to Craig Huntly, Clarence Huntley’s nephew (the different spelling of the last name is intentional), his uncle serviced P-39, P-47 and P-51 aircraft, and was the crew chief of the plane belonging to the squadron commander, Captain Andrew D. Turner. He took his job so seriously that Turner nicknamed him “Mother,” his nephew told the Associated Press. While stationed in Italy, Huntley was on hand for the 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as while as the bombing of the airfield where he worked.
Both Huntley and Shambrey were aware of the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen in the history of race relations in the United States, their relatives say. Shambrey’s son, Tim, told the AP that his father recalled getting off a train in segregated Alabama, where the Airmen trained. While a hospitality station welcomed white troops with handshakes and free coffee, Tim Shambrey said that “When he and his buddies came off, dressed in their uniforms, of course they didn’t get any congratulations”—and they had to pay for their own coffee.
Huntley and Shambrey both returned to Los Angeles after World War II and got married to their respective sweethearts. The two men kept kept in regular touch and, according to Huntley’s nephew, “were friends all the way until the end.” They served in the Korean War as well, as combat engineers. In civilian life, Huntley worked as a skycap at Los Angeles International and Burbank Airports for more than six decades, into his late 80s, while Shambrey worked as a supervisor for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.
According to Ron Brewington, president and historian of the Los Angeles chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., there are only 20 members of the chapter left after the passing of Huntley and Shambrey. He estimates there are 200 known Tuskegee Airmen still living in all (though that number may be higher) and says that the oldest known living Airman is 105 years old. As of last July, there were a total of some 1 million World War II veterans still alive in the United States; the U.S. Veterans Administration estimates that some 400 die every day.