Graham is pictured with a framed tribute to Tuskegee Airmen. (Special Photo)
RIVERDALE — Exactly 18 months after being recognized by his hometown as the oldest Tuskegee Airman, Brew Graham has died at 98.
Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon said she was thankful Graham lived long enough to enjoy the recognition of his dedication to his country in combat during World War II.
“We just lost another icon,” she said. “The thing that saddens me is people of all ages didn’t get a chance to pick his brain, to see what he saw and feel what he felt. But I am happy he lived long enough to receive the accolades he deserved.”
Graham was honored with a proclamation at a March 26, 2012, Riverdale City Council meeting.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving with the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron. Members of the 99th trained at a segregated base in Tuskegee, Ala., and became known as Tuskegee Airmen. He later served with the 332nd Fighter Group, referred to as the Red Tails because of the color of their planes.
The Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance staff, instructors and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air. Graham worked as an airplane mechanic.
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly-respected fighter groups of WWII. The Airmen’s achievements, together with the more than 10,000 black men and women in military and civilian groups who supported them, paved the way for integration of the U.S. military, according to historians.
When Graham was honored by Riverdale, it was revealed that he didn’t want to serve because he was a conscientious objector and because the military was segregated. Graham family spokeswoman Ann Almond said the Airmen overcame those obstacles to serve with pride.
“During the time when race relations were embarrassing, these Airmen stepped up and served their country with honor and accomplished a record that any military unit would be envious of,” she said. “The Tuskegee Airmen were credited by higher commands with the following accomplishments: 15,533 combat stories, 1,578 missions, 112 German aircraft destroyed in the air and another 150 on the ground.”
Wynn-Dixon said she was impressed by Graham’s dedication to his country and his unit, despite the racial tensions in America.
“People would ask him why he did it,” she said. “He said he did it because it was the right thing to do. How many of us do what we do because it is the right thing?”
The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals and eight Purple Hearts.
On March 29, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. Congress.
Almond said Graham will be remembered for the “vital role he played as a dedicated and proud member of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Wynn-Dixon said she was honored to meet Graham last year because of the role he played in history but she was also touched by the obvious affection between him and his wife.
“When I saw them, he towered over her,” she said. “They were holding hands as if (they were) 20-years-old. They were still sharing that love.”
Evelyn Graham died in August. Wynn-Dixon said she believes maybe Graham “went to find her.”
“I like to think she was waiting for him,” she said. “She was holding out her hand to him, telling him, ‘Come on, baby.’”
Almond said the public viewing was held Thursday, Oct. 3, at Watkins Funeral Home at 163 North Ave. in Jonesboro from noon to 8 p.m.
The home-going celebration will by held Friday, Oct. 4, at Lakewin Christian Center at 6449 Church St. in Riverdale at 10 a.m, followed by interment at Georgia National Cemetery at 1080 Veterans Cemetery Road in Canton at 1:30 p.m.