Living History


Tuskegee Airman speaks to students

Jacqui White, Staff Writer

When Herbert Thorpe graduated from high school in 1940, he decided to stay in Brooklyn while his best friend joined the Army. Less than a year later, while staying in a Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), Thorpe heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Thorpe, a Tuskegee Airman, spoke on the Utica College campus in Carbone Family Auditorium on Jan. 18. His story resonated with everyone in attendance – including students and members of the community.

Known as one of the CCC Boys, he enlisted in the Army right after hearing about Pearl Harbor. After enlisting in the Army, Thorpe was sent to Troy, New York. While there, he was taught by RPI students about electricity.

“They came down the hill from RPI. I didn’t want to go up,” said Thorpe about his time in Troy.

At the end of basic training, Thorpe saw an application to travel from Utah to a flight training screening in Mississippi. Because he grew up in New York, he explained that he had never seen a lot of segregation between white and black people.

“I went to hand my train ticket in to get to the next train in Louisiana. I didn’t realize I was in the ‘whites only’ line until the ticket person to go to the other side,” Thorpe explained about his first experience with segregation.

Thorpe entered cadet school in Tuskegee, Alabama in the winter of 1943 when he was 20-years-old. He completed the first two stages of flight training, which involved handling a small aircraft and then moving on to a twin engine plane.

At this point, the Army wasn’t integrated, so the black pilots became part of the Tuskegee Airmen. Thorpes’ older brother flew for the Red Tails, but he died in a combat training mission. Thorpe was discharged from the Army in 1946.

After the war, Thorpe went on to become a part-time counselor at Mohawk Valley Community College. He was also the president of the NAACP at one time and he also received the Richard W. Cooper Living Legend award.

“It’s almost like we were never in World War II,” said Thorpe when discussing how the Tuskegee Airmen were viewed after the war.

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen, ground crews, squadrons and anyone who was involved with the Tuskegee Experiment, the name the Army gave the unit, were honored in Washington, D.C. by George W. Bush. Almost 300 men were honored, but Thorpe was unable to attend.