Thomas Gray, a retired Boeing engineer, has been researching Sam Bruce, a Garfield High School graduate and fighter pilot who was shot down over Italy during the Battle of Anzio in 1944. It’s part of Gray’s lifelong interest in aviation, but it is also about preserving a piece of history.
Bruce was one of the Tuskegee Airmen. The airmen didn’t get famous until their hair began to turn gray, and now most of them are gone, but people like Gray are keeping their story alive because it is an illuminating part of our national story.
Black Americans demanded a greater role in the military, including an end to the ban on black fliers. Constant pressure led to the creation of a training program at Tuskegee, Ala., where from 1941 through 1946 nearly 1,000 airmen were trained. Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in March 1941 to lend her support, even flying with one of the pilots and declaring that he could, indeed, fly a plane. The all-black fighter squadrons achieved a sterling record protecting bombers in combat. They painted the tails of their fighters red, and soon bombers would request escorts from the Red Tails because that color came to signify safety.
About 30 volunteers from the Seattle area became Tuskegee Airmen; the last, Lt. Col. Edward P. Drummond Jr., who finished training in 1946 and served in Korea (he flew 104 missions) and in Vietnam, died in August.
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The veterans didn’t call themselves Tuskegee Airmen until the 1970s when they began organized gatherings; the first was in Detroit in 1972, and after that they created a national organization with local chapters. The Seattle chapter was chartered in 1975, and named for Sam Bruce, Gray said, and it keeps going without the original members. The 53 current members are friends, relatives and admirers of the airmen.
Gray, 77, is the corresponding secretary of the chapter, and he’s also a docent at the Museum of Flight, where he noticed a display about Bruce that lists him as missing in action. Gray checked and found that actually, he isn’t missing.
Bruce was in pursuit of a German fighter, maybe two of them, when he was shot down. Verifying anything during combat is difficult, and originally he was listed as missing. Later documents, which for a time were classified, said he’d been killed and was buried in Italy.
At the most recent national convention, a Defense Department official found a document for Gray that showed Bruce’s mother requested that his body be returned to Seattle, and that in 1948 he was buried in the World War I Belleau Wood section of Evergreen Washelli’s Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery. He’s identified on the Washelli website, but no one in the chapter thought to look for him there. Gray said the Italian burial document listed Sam Bruce as white. Bruce could have passed for white, but his tombstone identifies his fighter group as the 99th, the most famous of the Red Tails.
Gray has questions about what was happening with the records in 1948, and wonders if Bruce’s mother was trying to be sure the cemetery would accept him, or if someone back then just made an error. But he’s glad to know Bruce is home.
He said the story of the fliers and their support staff matters because, “These men (and women) had to fight two wars in order to serve their country — they had the enemy abroad and racial discrimination at home — and yet they still persevered in doing their duty.”
Gray learned that Bruce still has family here, though they only recently discovered the connection.
Ted Howard, a retired Seattle high-school principal, came across the link while investigating his family history a few years ago. Howard told me his grandmother, Mary Bell Bruce, and Sam Bruce were cousins.
Now Howard’s son Ted Howard II is the principal at Garfield High School, the school Bruce attended.
That’s a nice discovery for the family, but we all should be proud of men like Bruce who volunteered to serve their country then and those who do so now. Sometimes appreciation comes late, as it did with the Red Tails, or other veterans including those today who struggle to get the care they’ve earned. We owe them recognition and sometimes we need to fight for them, too.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com