Veterans Day 2022: Tuskegee Airman last known Delaware native to serve in esteemed group

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — Veterans Day is a time to honor those who have served. But many veterans who served during the period of segregation did not receive their honors until decades later. These include the famous Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first group of African-American pilots in the US Army Air Corps.

The last living Delaware Native American who served as a Tuskegee Airman has quite the story to tell. It all starts with a framed sepia photograph showing Nathan O. Thomas in his full uniform. The picture was taken on the very day he enlisted as a Tuskegee Airman.

Thomas was drafted into World War II in 1945 at the age of 18.

“I had completed my freshman year at Delaware State University,” he said of his time before receiving his draft notice.

When he showed up for duty, it didn’t take long for the Army to realize that Thomas was among the best.

“I took this test,” he recalled. The guy says, “Boy, wow! How did you get that good score? …I have to send you to Tuskegee.’”

Arriving at Tuskegee Air Force Base, Thomas saw something he had never seen before: throngs of black men training to become pilots or keeping planes operational while running the base.

“I looked at all these men,” he said. “They were the greatest soldiers. You looked hot!”

Thomas knew he had to become one of them.

“I said, ‘I have to be here,'” said the 96-year-old.

Thomas served in operations in the United States. He issued flight commands for the pilots to carry out.

In 1941, the Tuskegee Airmen were formed by the US military but were never intended to fly. Racially biased notions led to the belief that black men could not fly airplanes. But then the army needed more men to serve in World War II. That’s when the Tuskegee Airmen got the green light to fly. The Airmen flew more than 1,200 missions with great success, but many, including Thomas, did not get the thanks of a hero.

“What he was given was little to nothing,” said Thomas’ daughter Nathania Johnson. “Others got more. He didn’t, so he just pushed that aside and moved on in life.”

Thomas later worked for the Philadelphia school district. He didn’t talk about his time as a Tuskegee Airman… not even with his own children.

“I knew he was on duty, but I never knew he was a Tuskegee airman,” said Johnson, who didn’t discover what her father had accomplished until adulthood.

Decades after their service, the Tuskegee Airmen finally received the awards they deserved, including the Congressional Gold Medal presented by President George W. Bush in 2007.

“[People are finding]all the unknowns that we were involved in,” Thomas said of the service, which has not previously been credited to him and his military peers.

At 96, Thomas now proudly shares his story which is an inspiration to others.

“I met a young man just two weeks ago,” Thomas said. “He wants to be a pilot!”

Thomas estimates that they have a few hundred Tuskegee Airmen at most still living with them, many of them in their 90s. That’s why he now spends so much time making sure the Tuskegee Airmen are never forgotten.

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