WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCBD) – During the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump highlighted a recent promotion of 100-year-old Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee airman, to Brigadier General.
There is a strong Lowcountry connection to the Tuskegee Airmen as several of them trained at what is now the Walterboro Airport.
“Wanted to participate in defending their country but was thought to not have the skills not have the ability or the talent or even the courage,” said James Hampton is a historian with the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Hiram E Mann chapter.
President Roosevelt authorized an experimental school for African American pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama. About 1,000 pilots were Tuskegee Airmen. Eventually, some 500 trained at the Army Air Station in Walterboro in the 1940s.
“In addition to training there, they worked with the Charleston Air Force Base bombers.”
The Tuskegee Airmen would fly next to bombers over Europe, defending the bombers from enemy aircraft.
“During the war, World War II, they flew a total of 1,500 combat missions.”
But they were not always treated as equals.
Even the base theater had segregated seating. One Tuskegee Airman, Charles Dryden, is quoted as saying, rather than be segregated, “we boycotted the theater.”
Hampton joined the Air Force in the 960s, about 20 years after WWII, and he said he wanted to fly.
“Well I was basically told at that time there was no positions for me as a black man, to fly, but I insisted that’s what I wanted to do and sure enough I got accepted as a loadmaster,” he said.
He went on to serve in Vietnam and worked on numerous aircraft over 23 years. Ironically, he worked with some of the Tuskegee Airmen during his career.
“But at the time I did not know that these gentlemen were Tuskegee Airmen. They were very humble men,” he recalled.
Hampton says his career was not possible without the Tuskegee Airmen.
“I had an opportunity to actually participate on their shoulders. As a result of what the Tuskegee Airmen did, I was able to accomplish what I was able to accomplish.”
Today, Hampton serves as a Lincolnville town councilman.
“I feel very humble in the fact those men and those women and those people sacrificed themselves in order to make things easier and better opportunities for me and others coming behind me.”
You can learn even more about the Tuskegee Airmen at their memorial park in front of the airport in Walterboro.