BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Willie Rogers, the oldest surviving member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, passed away last Friday at the age of 101 from complications of a stroke. He was part of the 100th Air Engineer Squad as well as the Red Tail Angels.
Born in Apalachicola, Fla., in 1915, Rogers was 27 years old when he was drafted into the army in 1942, but not before earning a college degree from Claflin College of Agricultural and Mechanical Institute.
He joined the Tuskegee Airmen, which is the name later given to the first African-American military aviators and crewmembers in the United States Armed Forces.
Black people were considered not intelligent enough to fly planes, so a group of pilots bent on proving their worth flew in a makeshift plane with borrowed money from Chicago to Washington, D.C. in order to speak with then Senator Harry S. Truman.
They were grounded several times but they finally made it. The pilots pleaded for blacks to be allowed to fly planes, and in 1941 the American Air Force began a program in Tuskegee, Ala., to train African Americans to fly in combat.
As a master sergeant in the 100th Fighter Squadron, Rogers was not a pilot. He worked in logistics and administration and did tours in the Mediterranean.
Rogers pictured here with family at the second annual City of St. Petersburg Veterans Day Celebration on Nov. 11, 2015.
Following World War II, Rogers and other war heroes returned from Europe and were met with harsh Jim Crow laws. Their role in the history of this country was swept under the rug.
Rogers moved to St. Pete and opened up Rogers’ Radio Sales and Services, never mentioning his wartime heroism. In 2007 when President George W. Bush presented 300 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, Rogers still had not opened up about his role in history to his family and missed the ceremony.
Learning to accept the accolades, in 2013 he received his own Congressional Gold Medal. In Aug. of last year the Veteran’s Art Center of Tampa Bay honored him with a portrait unveiling at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, and later that same the City of St. Petersburg honored him in their second annual Veterans Day Celebration.
Up until recently, every Sunday morning he could be seen walking to church services at Bethel AME, which was near his home.
Rogers truly defined what it is to be an American hero. Exemplifying fortitude and freedom for all humanity, he earned his place in history.