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Tuskegee Airmen

Willie Rogers, the last member of the original Tuskegee Airmen, dead at 101

Rogers was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007

The last member of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Willie Rogers of St. Petersburg, Florida, died Monday. He was 101 years old. The Airmen were members of the first African-American military aviation squadron in U.S. armed forces history.

“He didn’t like a lot of fuss,” said Clinton Glover, Rogers’ nephew. “He was humble. That’s who he was.”

Rogers was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and served as a member of the logistics team in the 100th Air Engineer Squad and the Red Tail Angels. During a mission in Italy, Rogers was shot in the stomach and leg by German soldiers in January 1943. He spent three months in a London hospital recovering from his wounds.

On April 29, 1945, following Germany’s surrender and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, Rogers, along with other American troops, took inventory of the camp.

Former President George W. Bush welcomed the Tuskegee Airmen’s 300 surviving members to the White House in 2007 and awarded each of them the Congressional Gold Medal. Neither Rogers nor his daughters, Felicia Rogers and Veronica Williams, attended the ceremony, and they didn’t even know about their father’s participation with the group until 2012.

Tuskegee Airman Major Anderson shows off a Congressional Gold Medal given to all Tuskegee Airmen during a ceremony commemorating Veterans Day and honoring the group of World War II airmen November 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The ceremony was held at the African American Civil War Museum on the day that World War I ended 95 years ago, the date the United States honors all of its military veterans.

Tuskegee Airman Major Anderson shows off a Congressional Gold Medal given to all Tuskegee Airmen during a ceremony commemorating Veterans Day and honoring the group of World War II airmen Nov. 11, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Times reported that “part of the reason for that silence, he’d tell his family, was because his work was on the ground in logistics and administration, not in the sky where the heroics took place.”

Six years later in November 2013, Rogers received his Congressional Gold Medal. Besides that award, Rogers’ portrait was placed in the St. Petersburg Museum of History, and he received the keys to the cities of Lakeland and St. Petersburg, Florida.

“He would always say there were many who deserved attention more, but were not here to receive it,” Williams said.

Rogers lived in St. Petersburg after the war and opened his own business — Rogers Radio Sales and Services. He was born in Apalachicola, Florida, in 1915.

From 1942 to 1946, approximately 15,000 men and women participated in the Tuskegee Institute during World War II. The U.S. military trained civilians as part of the Tuskegee Experience, starting in May 1940 when students completed their pilot training program.

The Tuskegee Airmen would turn out to be one of the most successful fighter units in U.S. history — fighting in more than 200 combat missions and never losing a single bomber to enemy fire. No other group can claim that achievement.

Although African-Americans were often discriminated against while serving in the military, Rogers was still able to put that into perspective.

“He could give dates, names, locations of events from the war,” Williams said. “But he didn’t like to give specifics about what occurred to him. He saw things that were bad. And he experienced treatment because he was African-American that wasn’t fair.

“He recognized that we as a people, and he as a black man, have come a long way, but that there is still more to go. But in God’s eyes, there is no color, he’d say. We are all one and he lived by the greatest commandment — to love one another.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.