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Saluting a local hero: Riverdale honors oldest Tuskegee Airman

Photo by Jeylin White
Tuskegee Airman, Brew Graham, 97, and his wife, Evelyn Graham, accept a proclamation from Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon and councilmembers, Monday night. Graham was honored for being the oldest-living Tuskegee Airman.

Photo by Jeylin White Tuskegee Airman, Brew Graham, 97, and his wife, Evelyn Graham, accept a proclamation from Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon and councilmembers, Monday night. Graham was honored for being the oldest-living Tuskegee Airman.

Brew Graham, 97, and his wife, Evelyn, 86, walked slowly, side by side, with their canes, into Riverdale City Hall on Monday evening. The mood was set for something special.

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Tuskegee Airman, Brew Graham, 97 (right), slowly makes his way into Riverdale City Hall, on Monday evening. Arthur Hughes, Chaplain for Atlanta Tuskegee Airmen Inc., helps Graham into the meeting, where Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon and councilmembers honored him as the oldest-living Tuskegee Airman.

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Photo by Stan Coleman Brew O. Graham displays an actual Army Air Corps check-off list for the P-40L aircraft's Packard Rolls-Royce V-1650-1 engine that was used during World War II. Graham was recently honored as the oldest-living Tuskegee Airman.

Mr. Graham would be honored by Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon and city councilmembers, for being the oldest living Tuskegee Airman.

Born in Greenwood, Miss, on Feb. 20, 1915, Graham served overseas during WW II as an airplane mechanic with the 99th Fighter Squadron, and later with the 332nd Fighter Group, aka the “Red Tails,” which is also the name of the motion picture released earlier this year.

The City of Riverdale presented a proclamation to Graham, on Monday. Local dignitaries and community members showered him with praise and applause. “This is a real war veteran,” said Wynn-Dixon. “It’s such an honor to be in the presence of a real hero, and someone who is a part of history and living right here in Riverdale.”

Graham, who has a hard time hearing, due to his age, used his facial expressions to let everyone know how appreciative he was of the award and accolades. He stood before the crowd with his wife, Evelyn, clutched at his side, and a smile on his face that stretched from ear to ear. In a gaspy voice, he said, “thank you,” then slowly made his way back to his seat.

When it came time for him to tell his story to a reporter, he allowed his wife to speak on his behalf. Sitting next to him, she was not shy about showing her love and affection as her hand slowly caressed the top of his knee. She told the reporter it was the movie, “Red Tails,” that led her to raise a major fuss over her husband being overlooked in the film.

“He was one of the first ones in the group to go overseas, and they didn’t even mention his name,” she said. “So, I said I’m going to let them know he is not dead.”

The George Lucas film, “Red Tails,” was a fictional portrayal of a group of African-American, United States Army Air Force (USAAF) servicemen during World War II.

Talk about a woman having her man’s back: Evelyn, who has been married to Graham for 20 years, sent an e-mail to Lucasflims, which produced the war movie, stating that her husband is a Tuskegee Airman, and is believed to be the oldest-living one. She said no one had bothered to get in touch with him, and the two of them currently reside in Riverdale. She told the production company that her husband has a hearing problem, so he does not talk on the phone (only in person). “Why is he being ignored?” she asked.

It was not long after that e-mail that a representative from Lucasflims contacted Gen. Leon Johnson, with the Tuskegee Airmen National Chapter. Graham was then contacted by Arthur Hughes, the chaplain for the Atlanta Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

“I live in Riverdale and I wanted to do something to get him [Graham] recognized,” said Hughes. He said he contacted Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie about recognizing Graham, and the city was happy to oblige.

However, before news about Brew Graham got to Hughes, it reached Zellie Rainey Orr first. Orr is a researcher and historian, in Austell, who was contacted by the president of the National Tuskegee Chapter, to conduct an interview with the Grahams at their home.

“The first to go overseas were the men of the 99th, in the Spring of 1943,” said Orr. “The Red Tails did not come until later, as the war was ending in 1944, and [Graham] was still there during that time.”

She said the movie did not represent all of the African-American pilots, or the ground crews. “There were 450 pilots and 1,500 groundmen who went overseas,” she said. “In the movie, it only shows 8 to 10 pilots,” said Orr. “The movie tried to tell a story inspired by the [Tuskegee Airmen], but it was not their actual story.”

She said that during the war, according Graham’s U.S. Army “Separation Qualification Record,” he worked as a crew chief. His duties included examining and inspecting the planes, and providing detailed reports as to the amount of damage or worn parts.

He was a qualified all-round engine-and-plane mechanic, and assigned other mechanics to repair all damages, she said. He supervised, and inspected, their work, and tested the planes, including taxiing them around the field before they were OKed to fly again.

During Orr’s interview with Graham, she learned that he did not want to go overseas. “He was a conscientious objector and understood that this country was racist, and did not represent him, but he followed the rules.”

She said that even though several blacks already had pilot’s licenses as civilians, before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected, she said — rejected because blacks were not perceived as intelligent enough to operate a plane.

“Mr. Graham was part of an experiment where they would learn to fight in combat,” said Orr. “Fighting in combat as a pilot, in that plane by yourself, you have to be able to think and move quickly, and they thought blacks could not do that.”

According to Orr, the last time, prior to Monday, that Graham was recognized as a Tuskegee Airman was 20 years ago, when he was given an award in Rome, Italy. Since then, she said, “he has been flying under the radar.” Because no one had any contact with Graham, he missed the 2007 ceremonies honoring the Tuskegee Airman, in which U.S. President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to 200 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, at the U.S. Capitol.

Mayor Wynn-Dixon said she has contacted U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), and was told that Graham’s medal will be mailed to him, along with a special note from current U.S. President Barack Obama.