Tuskegee Airman gives talk at library

Published 10:42 pm Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Dozens of people packed into a small meeting room at Morgan Memorial Library on Saturday to hear a talk by an original Tuskegee Airman.

Sgt. Harry Quinton spoke to the standing-room-only crowd as part of a series of library events in honor of Black History Month. He told the audience about the discrimination he and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen experienced as well as their many accomplishments during World War II.

Because of the segregation that was pervasive in all of American society then, including the military, they were men who had to “fight for the right to fight” for their country, Quinton said.

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He related the 1925 Army War College study that purported to evaluate the fitness of black soldiers for service in war. The conclusions of the study claimed that African-Americans were “natural cowards, unable to handle complicated machinery, only fit for menial tasks, couldn’t follow instructions, always needed white leadership, and last but not least, his brain was smaller than that of a white man,” Quinton said.

He noted that African-Americans had served in every war the United States had fought. “I just didn’t understand why they would do that,” Quinton said.

But by the time World War II was being waged, civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all-black pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941, according to tuskegeeairmen.org.

The Army Air Corps program trained black pilots in Tuskegee and also trained maintenance staff at other locations. Quinton, who was born in Maryland in 1925, attended the Atlantic Aviation Institute in Trenton, N.J., and Casey Jones School of Aeronautics in Newark, N.J., and received his Airplane Engine Mechanics License.

In 1943, Quinton enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve and was assigned to the Army Air Corps. He completed basic training at Keesler Field, Miss., and was assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group, 602nd Air Engineering Squadron at Godman Field, Ky.

Quinton would go on to complete B-25 Bomber School and ground school. Throughout the war, he was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Ribbon, World War II Victory Ribbon and the Army Air Force Technical Badge with Mechanic Bar.

Though Quinton was not a pilot, he touted the accomplishments of the pilots. White pilots frequently requested the “Red Tails,” as they were known because of the red-painted tails on their planes.

According to tuskegeeairmen.org, 72 Tuskegee Airmen shot down 112 enemy aircraft during World War II. The popular saying that they “never lost a bomber” is false, but the Tuskegee Airmen lost significantly fewer bombers than the average lost by other fighter groups in the 15th Air Force.

The Tuskegee Airmen were also credited with hundreds of planes and rail cars destroyed or damaged on the ground, one destroyer put out of action and 40 boats and barges destroyed.

Quinton was discharged shortly after the war ended, but he was soon to find the discrimination hadn’t ended. Quinton and other black servicemen were denied their G.I. Bill benefits, he said. They were supposed to get $20 a week for 52 weeks while they were looking for work.

“People just did whatever they wanted to do,” he said. “They set their own rules. They said, ‘Black guys can’t get it,’ and they just didn’t want us to get it. They thought we wouldn’t go to work because we had $20 in our pocket.”

“When we came back, a lot of people hadn’t even heard about us,” Quinton said. “Thank God I lived long enough when they finally recognized us. It took 70 years for us to get any real recognition.”

Quinton followed his military service with an associate degree in business and a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting, as well as graduate studies at Hofstra University. He retired from the U.S. Treasury Department after having worked as an agent. He now resides in Williamsburg.

The original Tuskegee Airmen were cited for the Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol in March 2007. In May 2012, Quinton was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Old Dominion University.

Quinton is a member of the Tidewater Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which meets monthly. Visit www.tai-tidewaterchapter.com for more information.