We often hear the term, “larger than life,” which defines a person’s life as being filled with extraordinary events and accomplishments; a life in which a person overcame obstacles and had achievements, which at the time seemed impossible.
Meet retired Lt. Col. Asa Herring, whose body of work started as a Tuskegee Airman. He spent an additional 21 years in the Air Force as well as many post-retirement years with Western Electric and performing community service. His life is the material of legends.
His story began Oct. 3, 1926, in Dunn, N.C. He was born at a time when African-Americans had few rights and even fewer opportunities, but he would defy the odds and lead a life which nearly nine decades later would be part of an incredible journey for him and a nation.
Herring graduated from high school at age 16 but had to wait until he was 18 before he could enter the military. He had passed the Army Air Corps written examination at age 17 and entered active-duty as an aviation cadet Dec. 27, 1944.
However, World War II ended before he finished his training. Germany had surrendered and the “Tuskegee Experiment” was one of many flying schools that were soon to be eliminated, he said.
He left the Army Air Corps in 1946, but his love of aviation and a profound change in policy would bring him back.
“I did not want to be in a segregated military, so that is the principle reason I left,” he said. “I also wanted to further my education. I had graduated from several top-notch technical schools, but was unable to obtain employment with an airline or a fixed-base operator. Then President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ending the policy of racial segregation. With the end of segregation and the Air Force becoming a separate branch of the military, I volunteered for military service in 1949 and stayed until 1970. Joining the Air Force and being able to fly was a turning point in my life.”
What’s more, Herring’s years offered him the opportunity to travel the world. He served in England, Germany, Korea and Vietnam, as well temporary duty assignments worldwide. His service in Vietnam included flying 350 combat missions.
He said his years in the military gave him a special confidence and a new perspective.
“You know you can do something, but people won’t let you do it,” he said. “Once you are in a combat situation such as in Vietnam, you get a different perspective. I realized that we were in it together and color didn’t matter.”
Herring’s more than two decades of military service included three tours of duty at Luke Air Force Base, where he was the first African-American squadron commander. He trained pilots in the F-104G Advanced Jet Fighter Gunnery Program.
He said he was officially appointed an honorary command pilot in the German Luftwaffe.
Not only that, Herring flew a plethora of aircraft, which included the PT-17, AT-6, F-51D, T-33, F-86A, F-84, F-100C, D, F and G, and the F-104G.
After retiring from the military, Herring’s pace didn’t slow at all. He spent the next two decades at Western Electric, which at the time was the manufacturing arm of American Telephone and Telegraph. He retired in 1989.
“I had the opportunity to serve in several management positions including personnel, quality assurance, manufacturing operations and benefits administrations,” he said.
Community service in many facets is a strong aspect of his legacy. His service included being a member of the Phoenix Union High School Vocational Advisory Board, the chairman of Phoenix Municipal Aeronautics Board and the Phoenix Community Development Block Grant Committee.
Herring was married 61 years. His wife died Veterans Day 2011. He has two sons.
In all, he reflected on his life and the profound changes he’s experienced.
Herring said he is pleased by how far the fight for equality has progressed, but cautioned that there is still work to be done.
“The changes have been great,” he said. “That’s what we fight and die for is to have justice and equality both here and abroad.”