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Time takes toll on Tuskegee Airmen

It’s Tommie Lamb’s crunchtime. The calls keep coming. It’s like this in the weeks just before Black History Month.

“We weren’t keeping up with the demand,” Lamb says, “and that was before all the recent losses.”

Lamb is the president of the hottest group of octogenarians around — the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Since the country elected a black president in 2008, the triumphant story of the military’s first African-American pilots — the fighters their own country didn’t want — has been told on the news, in documentaries and, last year, in a movie by George Lucas of Star Wars fame.

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Nearly 70 years after World War II, the Airmen got famous. They had become symbols of racial perseverance. And also of how far we’ve come.

So Lamb’s phone rings.

“High schools, Rotary clubs, churches, air shows — they all want to hear the stories,” says Lamb (who was not a Tuskegee Airman himself).

Only there’s one big unsolvable problem.

“I tell them there are no Tuskegee Airmen left that can come speak to their group,” Lamb says. “There’s silence on the other end of the line. Everybody wants an original Tuskegee.”

In the past eight months, three Seattle-area Airmen have died. That means of the original local contingent of about 30, there are only two known living Airmen left in the region.

One, a former Boeing engineer and Tuskegee gunner named Bill Booker, 90, of Kirkland, is ill in a nursing home.

The other is Ed Drummond Jr., 86, of Lakewood. He was one of the last pilots to graduate from the elite black aviators program in Alabama, at the age of 19. (There may be others who prefer to stay private, Lamb said. There are fewer than a hundred pilots left nationwide.)

“All the attention we’ve gotten these past few years has been gratifying,” Drummond said Friday from his home. “But I do regret that so many who endured so much weren’t around to hear it.”

Drummond fulfills some of the many speaking requests, but said, “It’s too much for one person. I’m not a young man anymore!”

The most recent to pass on was Perry Thomas, 88, of Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood. He died in December and will be honored this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field.

Seattle’s George Hickman died in August, also at 88. Pilot George Miller, 86, passed away in Lakewood in May.

So it’s going with the entire Greatest Generation. It won’t be with us much longer.

I got to interview four of the Airmen a few years back, and was floored by their total lack of bitterness. These guys were told they were too stupid to operate complex machinery. After they did it anyway, with distinction, when they returned home their own country often treated them worse than German prisoners.

Yet they had all pushed on to have happy lives and careers, many at Boeing. Hickman said this was their greatest achievement: how they persisted.

Lamb said the local organization is struggling to persist, too. Even after the Airmen are gone, the goal is to keep telling their stories.

But with each death, some of it is lost, probably forever.

“Years ago we’d have a dozen of them together, and once we got a few drinks in them, man, the stories they’d tell would blister your ears,” he said. “I doubt half those stories were even true.

“I’ve always wished I’d had a tape recorder with me.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

 

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