Thomas Ellis, a Tuskegee Airman, is dead at 97

Thomas Ellis answers a question from the audience at the second annual Tuskegee Heritage Breakfast on Feb. 8, 2010. From left to right, his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. Granville Coggs, Warren Eusen, Dr. Gene Derricotee and John "Mule" Miles look on.


By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: January 10, 2018

SAN ANTONIO (Tribune News Service) — Former Sgt. Maj. Thomas Ellis, one of six surviving Tuskegee Airmen in San Antonio, died Jan. 2 of a stroke in a local hospital. He was 97.

A draftee, he served as a top administrator with the first all-black Army Air Forces unit and was proud of the unit’s record — 15,533 sorties, 112 aerial kills, three Presidential Unit Citations and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Known as approachable and easygoing, even with strangers, Ellis also chafed at the racism African Americans endured from white officers during the war and knew the importance of proving that the 332nd Fighter Group was up to the job.

“He was very opinionated, very outspoken,” said Rick Sinkfield, national spokesman for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which has 1,400 members across the country, around 20 of them pilots from the legendary unit. "He realized he was in the segregated military at the time and so he was very aware all eyes were on those guys to do well.”

Ellis will be buried with full military honors at 9 a.m. Friday in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. Just five Tuskegee Airmen remain in San Antonio with his passing — James Bynum, 97; Theodore Johnson, 93; James Kelly, 89; Eugene Derricotte, 91, and Dr. Granville Coggs, 92.

Ellis entered the Army as two-thirds of all Americans did, as a draftee. His daughter, Janice Stallings, said he entered the service in 1942 and was transferred to the Army Air Forces.

Ordered to Tuskegee Army Airfield, Ellis was the only enlisted member in the newly activated in the 301st Fighter Squadron, rising to staff sergeant and becoming an integral member of the 332nd Fighter Group, serving under then-Col. Benjamin O. Davis, who eventually became an Air Force general.

They deployed to Italy, where Ellis earned seven battle stars and left the Army as a sergeant major.

Back home, he initially worked as a porter for Frost Brothers but landed a job with the U.S. Postal Service, where he remained until 1984. Stallings, a 75-year-old retired teacher living in Los Angeles, said he had a strong work ethic and was a good provider and pushed her to get a good education.

“Man of the Year” at St. Paul Methodist Church, where a service was held last Saturday, Ellis was the first president of Methodist Men and was known as being friendly to everyone. He also had a lighter side.

“He was really approachable, really easy to meet. He made people feel real good. What he would do is he would see an older person, a person who was holder than him, and say, ‘How are you doing, young man? How are you doing, young lady,’” she recalled.

“He was like that,” Stallings added. “Very friendly. Too friendly sometimes. Its just that he would slow you down if you tried to take him someplace.”

The post office was Ellis’s day job, but there was a second one as well, with Ellis leading a jazz quintet. Sinkfield, who also heads the Tuskegee Airmen’s San Antonio chapter, said the Tom Ellis Jazz Quintet played around the San Antonio and was well known to people throughout the city. Ellis played the piano, and very well.

“He had a jazz quintet that played around San Antonio … and he could play that piano like it was just his baby. He was just a natural,” Sinkfield said. “He was quite the musician.”

As the holiday season began, Stallings said she worked with him to send out Christmas cards. As they wrote messages, Ellis kept thinking of more friends to add to his list.

“He didn’t want to leave anybody out,” she said. “He didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.”

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Thomas Ellis, a Tuskegee Airman administrative clerk with the 301st Fighter Squadron, speaks with other Tuskegee Airmen during the First Tuskegee Heritage Breakfast on Feb. 9, 2009 at the 99th Flying Training Squadron.