ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At 101 years old, Willie Rogers, the oldest living member of the valiant Tuskegee Airmen, died in St. Petersburg on Saturday morning. During World War II, Rogers served as the Master Sergeant of the Airmen at a time when the U.S. military was still segregated.
Rogers was primarily based on the ground, and he worked to coordinate the difficult logistics of his fellow Airmen. For his service, he received the Congressional Gold Medal.
His daughter, Veronica, told the Tampa Bay Times that her father always exhibited God’s love to everyone he met.
“He recognized that we as people and he as a black man have come a long way but that there is still more to go,” she said to the Times. “But in God’s eyes there is no color, he’d say. We are all one and he lived by the greatest commandment — to love one another.”
The Tuskegee Airmen, trained at Tuskegee University in Alabama, were the first African-American aviators in the U.S. military. Formed during WWII, the 99th Flying Squadron, which later earned the name “Red Tails” for their distinctively painted plane tails, became one of the most fearsome groups of fighters in the European theater.
In many ways the Tuskegee Airmen and their skill and bravery during WWII began the dismantling of the discrimination and segregation in which the rest of the country was still mired.
Their story was captured in the 2012 film “Red Tails,” executive produced by George Lucas and starring Cuba Gooding, Jr..
“The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II,” explains TuskegeeAirmen.org. “They proved conclusively that African Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen’s achievements, together with the men and women who supported them, paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.”