Lt. Col. Hiram Mann, one of the 992 black pilots that served during World War II and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, lived long enough to see history honor their service and racial prejudice overturned in the military.
Last Saturday, Mann died, just days short of his 93rd birthday in his home of Titusville, Fla. and was buried with honors on Friday.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-Americans allowed to train and serve as aviators, but serving meant fighting against racial prejudice in a fully segregated military as well as on the war front.
It took years after the war before these experienced pilots were fully accepted and it wasn't until 1997 when Mann was honored with the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest honor. It was 2007 before the group received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush for their service, a medal that is displayed at the Smithsonian Institute.
Mann was one of the "Red Tails" - elite pilots later memorialized in a movie of the same title. They painted the tails of their aircraft crimson.
When he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen joined the Army Air Forces (now the U.S. Air Force), they were always considered lower in rank than their white counterparts, Mann said in a 2013 speech to Timberland High School students.
Despite that discrimination, Mann flew 48 combat missions with the 332nd Fighter Group in a fighter he nicknamed "The Iron Lady." When he and his fellow airmen returned from the war, they sailed back to the U.S. on a segregated ship.
Mann served in the Air Force for 21 years and went on to earn his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in counseling from the United States Air Force Academy.
In the last 20 years of his life, Mann worked with Sgt. Johnnie Thompson, a Korean War veteran, to keep the history of the Tuskegee Airmen alive in Walterboro, where Mann first trained for military service. Over 500 of the famed Tuskegee Airmen trained at Walterboro Army Air Field between April 1944 and October 1945. The city's chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen is named for Mann, and a handful of members attended his funeral on Friday.
Thompson first met Mann in 1993, after going to an air show in hopes of meeting a Tuskegee Airman. None of the veterans were at the event, but Thompson did get some contact information from a show organizer.
"I could hardly wait for Monday morning to get on the phone," Thompson said.
That airman, Thompson found out, was Mann.
After that phone call more than 20 years ago, Mann and Thompson became fast friends. Mann returned to Walterboro shortly afterward, serving as Grand Marshal in Walterboro's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade - one of the grandest the city's ever seen, according to Thompson. Mann led the parade riding in a Humvee with a Marine Corps band playing behind him.
Later, Mann worked with Thompson to raise money and get state and local support for a Tuskegee Airmen monument in Walterboro. With support from then-Gov.
David Beasley, the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial was erected at the Walterboro Army Airfield in 1997. Twenty-one airmen who trained at the airfield, including Mann, attended the monument's dedication and received the Order of the Palmetto.
"I put in a lot of the work, but I had to rely on him to get the information," Thompson said. "It was real exciting to have known him."
Mann is survived by his son, Eugene, also of Titusville, Fla.
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