World War II pilot offered hope, inspiration

If someone is looking for a story full of inspiration and hope, he or she should know the story of Luke Weathers Jr.

He was a man who never let obstacles or what looked like impossible odds stop him.

Weathers, retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, flew P-51 and P-39 aircraft as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II 1942 to 1945. In one day, he shot down two German fighters that were attacking American bombers he was escorting. He was part of a group of Airmen who accomplished historical feats.

Tuskegee Airmen pilots flew more than 15,000 sorties, destroyed or damaged more than 400 enemy aircraft and destroyed more than 1,000 military targets, as well as sinking an enemy destroyer. These efforts were unequalled by any unit in the history of American aerial combat, Richard Toliver, retired Air Force pilot said.

“Four hundred fifty pilots served overseas in the 99th Pursuit Squadron – later the 99th Fighter Squadron – and 332nd Fighter Group,” Toliver said.

These combat achievements earned the Tuskegee Airmen pilots numerous awards, but came with a price.

“The Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 pilots and 32 spent time as prisoners of war,” he said. “Their awards included a Legion of Merit, Silver Star, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 14 Bronze Stars and eight members received a Purple Heart.”

The German Luftwaffe wasn’t the only fight Weathers had to endure. He had to struggle against racial discrimination as well as a military that was actively segregated.

However, the brilliant performance of Weathers and other Tuskegee Airmen helped lead President Harry Truman to desegregate in military.

Weathers’ daughter, Wanda Weathers Smith, of Coolidge, Arizona, reflected that having grown up decades ago as an African American child in the South, she is fortunate because her father was ahead of his times.

“Before integration, he took his family to the all-white St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church in Memphis, Tennessee, in the early 1960s,” she said. “He lived by the adage, ‘There was no black or white in our house, there were just people.’”

Weathers went on to become the first African-American air traffic controller in Memphis.

Finally, Weathers, along with 300 other Tuskegee Airmen, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal March 29, 2007.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the medal, “Their unwavering commitment to protect and serve their country even in the face of segregation and discrimination is an inspiration befitting the highest congressional honor.”

Weathers’ earthly journey came to an end Oct. 15, 2011, in Tucson at the age of 90. He spent the last seven years of his life in Tucson.

Toliver summed up his amazing life in the most fitting manner.

“People should know this man is a great American icon that has passed from us,” he said. “We were blessed to have him among us. There was no bravado or bragging. He was a kind, humble person always willing to be engaged and doing things for his country and his community. His life’s work opened doors for women and minorities.”

More than 2,500 years ago the Greek poet and writer Sophocles wrote: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

For Weathers, the day was splendid.

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