As we pause to remember and give thanks to our veterans, this year I am reflecting particularly on those who served in World War II, a population that sadly grows smaller every day. Few members of that modest “Greatest Generation” have a more compelling tale than the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military pilots, who had to fight for the right and privilege to serve their country in combat from the pilot’s seat of a warbird.
That small group lost one of its leaders last Thursday with the death of Col. Herbert E. Carter (Ret.). Carter, 95, was one of the original members of the 99th Fighter Squadron and flew combat missions during the North African, Sicilian, Italian, and European campaigns of World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen trained at the Tuskegee Institute–now Tuskegee University–in Tuskegee, Alabama. After the war Carter returned to the campus, where he served as a professor of air science and commanded the Air Force ROTC detachment from 1950 to 1955; he was a professor of aerospace studies from 1965 to 1969. When he retired from the Air Force, he served at Tuskegee as assistant dean for student services and associate dean for admissions and recruiting.
Carter was married for more than 60 years to Mildred L. Hemmons Carter, also a pilot who was counted among the Tuskegee Airmen. I once had the pleasure of hearing him describe their courtship during early 1942. They would arrange to meet over a lake near Tuskegee, she in a Piper J-3 Cub and he flying a much faster North American AT-6 Texan. They married before Carter deployed for combat; CNN ran a touching story on the couple after Mildred died in October 2011.
I believe the last time I saw Carter was during the summer of 2011, when Matt Quy visited Tuskegee’s Moton Field in his Stearman–one that was originally assigned to training of the Tuskegee Airmen–on its way to the Smithsonian Institution (you can see the video from that story here).
Godspeed, Mr. Carter–and thank you to all our veterans.