March 12, 2010

Maine airman who felt sting of bias rides in parade

— WASHINGTON — Back before they called him a Tuskegee Airman, back before he wove himself into history, Jim Sheppard would have dismissed the question outright:

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Staff Photo by Fred J. Field, Tuesday, May 17, 2005: Tuskeegee Airmen Staff Sargeant James Sheppard of South Portland with the 301st Fighter Squadron in Italy in 1944. With Meredith ML.TUSKEGEE.0517

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Thursday, January 15, 2009...James Sheppard, of South Portland, was an original member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first all black unit of military airmen in WWII. Sheppard has been invited to participate in Barak Obama's inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. next week. Sheppard worked as an aircraft mechanic on P-51 Mustang's, like this model plane, while in the squadron.

Sixty-six years ago, did he think it possible that in his lifetime, the commander in chief of the U.S. military would share his skin color?

''Well, there you said the key word -- in my lifetime,'' replied Sheppard, 84, of South Portland. ''And I would have to say no.''

Yet there Sheppard sat Tuesday with nine of his old comrades, riding in style down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue.

And there in the reviewing stand outside the White House sat President Barack Obama, the nation's first black commander in chief.

''The No. 1 job?'' Sheppard said, repeating the question. ''I figured it was impossible with the resistance white people had against black progress in the United States.''

He should know.

The first time he passed through this city, 18 years old and fresh out of Haaren Aviation High School in New York City, Jim Sheppard was anything but a VIP.

It was the start of World War I. Sheppard, newly inducted into the then-segregated U.S. Army, was on his way to the Tuskegee Air base in Alabama -- not to fulfill his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, but rather to serve as an aviation mechanic.

Changing trains in Union Station, he and all the other black soldiers were ordered to sit in the front of the train because the air there, thick with fumes from the locomotive, wasn't considered fit for white folks to breathe.

''You had to be living back in those days to understand how it worked, because don't forget, discrimination was every day, everywhere,'' said Sheppard. ''Every time you got on a bus or a train or a grocery store it was just there.''

It was also there at Tuskegee, where then-President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the creation of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first all-black unit in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Black and white?

It was that -- and then some.

Sheppard remembers a white guy named Sgt. Torgenson who trained Sheppard at Tuskegee. They got to know each other pretty well as time passed. In another time and place, they might have considered themselves friends.

''But on weekends when we went into town, he'd pass by me on the street and not even look at me,'' Sheppard said. ''It was like he didn't know me.''

That would change -- not just for Sheppard, but for all the black airmen from Tuskegee. The harder the whites tried to prove that ''we couldn't cut it,'' Sheppard said, the more resolved the black airmen became to prove them wrong.

''We didn't just want to succeed. We wanted to be better,'' said Sheppard, who became a crew chief for the P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts, P-30s and Curtiss P-40s that the squadron learned to fly.

Oh, could they fly.

Deployed as bomber escorts in 1943 -- first to Africa, and then, as the Germans retreated, on to Italy -- the 332nd flew more than 1,500 missions without once losing a bomber.

Their success, while tempered by the loss of 66 of their own pilots, helped persuade President Harry Truman to order the desegregation of the military in 1948.

''Everyone was trying to prove we couldn't do it,'' Sheppard said. ''But we developed into one of the best fighter groups in the whole doggone Air Force.''

A fat lot of good it did them. Returning home from Italy, Sheppard and his comrades walked off the troop ship and back into cold reality: White soldiers disembarked to the left, and blacks went to the right.

''We were better off in Italy,'' Sheppard said, shaking his head at the injustice of it all.

Most of the Tuskegee Airmen, unable to find jobs, left aviation forever. Sheppard worked as a postal carrier for five years before finally landing a job servicing Constellation luxury airliners at JFK International Airport in New York City.

That led to a job as a safety inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration, which in turn led to an assignment in 1972 to the Portland International Jetport. He retired there in 1987.

Through it all, Sheppard has remained tightly tethered to the Tuskegee Airmen. He attends annual reunions religiously, and last year was one of about 200 survivors of the 332nd who received the Congressional Gold Medal from then-President Bush.

His best post-war memory? Traveling with five of his comrades in 2005 to spend 10 days with what is now the 332nd Fighter Wing at an air base in Balad, Iraq.

''They didn't even know about us,'' he said. ''These teenagers probably thought there had been black fighter pilots since George Washington. They all said, 'Tuskegee? What's that?' ''

No such problem now.

Sheppard, a longtime Republican, voted for Obama last fall because ''what he said made sense to me -- and what McCain said started to not make sense to me as he got toward the end.''

(For the record, he's also peeved that McCain, a former prisoner of war, is hailed as a hero for being shot down over North Vietnam. Getting shot down, he said, does not a hero make.)

Sheppard, to be honest, isn't sure why they picked him to ride in Tuesday's parade, but he jumped at the chance to share this moment in history with old buddies Capt. Roscoe Brown, Col. Lee Archer and Tech Sgt. George Watson, and the rest of these fiercely proud old soldiers who years ago would have laughed at the thought of a president who looks so much like them.

Long before Tuesday's parade, Sheppard already knew how he'd mark this latest chapter in the Tuskegee Airmen's storied history.

With a salute?

''No,'' he said, with a broad smile. ''I'll give him a wink.''

But in the end, as the cars carrying the airmen veered in toward the reviewing stand and Sheppard found himself momentarily face to face with the new first family, he changed his mind.

''I winked at his wife,'' he said.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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