GENESEO – This Veterans Day, the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo hosted a moving ceremony for five Tuskegee Airmen to finally receive their copies of the Congressional Gold Medal.
Rep. Chris Collins and Alison Hunt, District Director for the 23rd NY Congressional District held by Rep. Tom Reed, officially presented bronze replicas of the original Tuskegee Congressional Gold Medal to Wallace C. Higgins and Herbert C. Thorpe. Thorpe accepted a second medal replica for his late brother, Richard Thorpe, and the family of Leland H. Pennington accepted the award for him posthumously. The family of Robert M. Johnson received his posthumous award later on Friday.
“I left school to go into service, I was 18, and it was quite an experience for me. I didn’t know anything about segregation to speak of,” said Higgins, who turns 91 today. “I got a little bit but all my friends were different, and I just didn’t know there was such a thing. It sounds innocent but it’s just the way it was. And it But I had wonderful friends, and I remember getting ready to marry my wife [who was white] and I said ‘How do you think the people will think about this?’ and my very best friend, who just passed away, he says ‘Well, Wally, you’re going to find out who your friends are.’ And he was absolutely right. So I have a lot of friends, and I thank all of them for coming.”
“I was not able to be at the original presentation of this distinguished and very very special honor to the Tuskegee Airmen, and the opportunity to do this at this time at this time…I have to thank so many people,” said “Also to make a special recognition of my brother Richard, my younger brother, who as has been told lost his life in Italy. The details, we’re still searching for them, lost somewhere in the Army records, but I thank you again for that.”
What started as a very small ceremony quickly grew into a gigantic affair that packed the National Warplane Museum’s main display hangar in Geneseo with more than 300 people. Tuskegee Airmen Inc. thanked the National Warplane Museum for hosting this distinguished historical honor to their own.
“This year is significant in that we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airman Experience,” said Ret. Brigardier General Leon Johnson of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. “We’re only going to have one 75th anniversary and this is it for us. It’s a big year.”
The National Warplane Museum provided the following details on the lives and service of these distinguished men:
Wallace Higgins – The Army took Wally on December 10, 1943. Initially reporting to Ft. Dix, NJ, he was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training and aptitude testing. As a result of his skin color and proficiencies, Wally was selected to be part of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment in Alabama. He trained in Pre-Flight at Tuskegee Institute, then completed his Primary Flight training, including solo runs in the P-17 Stearman. Wally spent 11 months at Tuskegee before a downturn in the war in Europe resulted in less pilot training at Tuskegee.
Leland Pennington – On April 21, 1945 the City of Rochester, NY lost a war hero. Flight Officer Leland H. Pennington, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen’s 301st Fighter Squadron was lost while returning to base from combat. A successful bomber escort mission over the Attnang-Puchheim Marshalling Yard in Austria was Pennington’s last action for the war effort. During this mission, Pennington was flying a P-51 B-10 Mustang named “Lucy Gal,” after his wife.
Herbert Thorpe – Herbert Thorpe is a native of Brooklyn who enlisted in the Army Reserves in October 1942. He underwent training at Tuskegee Army Air Field Flight School at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. After more training at gunnery school and bombardier/navigator school, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and later returned to Tuskegee and began advanced flight training. He earned B-25 Pilot’s Wings in October 1945 at Tuskegee, and was one of the heralded “Tuskegee Airmen,” the first black pilots in US history.
Richard Thorpe – Richard Thorpe had successfully completed pilot training and was assigned as a replacement pilot and sent to Italy. It was there during one of the orientation flights that he lost control of the plane, crashed and died in 1945.
Robert Johnson – Robert M. Johnson was born February 3 1925 in Pittsburgh, PA. He attended Morehead grade school and 5th Avenue High School in Pittsburgh, PA. Johnson enlisted in the Army Air Corps. on July 23, 1943 and received his flight training in Tuskegee, Alabama as well as completed his officer training as part of the Tuskegee project. Robert Johnson was killed in service December 5, 1944.
“I don’t cry easy but I do today. I wish my wife was here,” said Higgins. “I lost her on Christmas Eve this last year, but I’m sure she’s here somewhere. I remember telling someone I used to fly over Alabama on my training flight, and there was a circle of cows that looked up at me, a herd of them. And I said ‘oh, I wonder why they’re doing that,’ and I flew around and around and around and they watched me. I’ll never forget that.”