ST. PETERSBURG — Days before his 100th birthday, Willie N. Rogers spoke with reverence about Eleanor Roosevelt and her sense of racial justice. He mentioned what he said was a prevailing sentiment of the time, that black people were incapable of understanding complex machines, much less fly a plane.
Sitting in his wheelchair, he reminisced against a backdrop of family photographs, a People magazine cover of America's first black president and a younger version of himself in military uniform bearing a Tuskegee Airmen insignia.
Several times during the conversation, Rogers, who will celebrate his birthday on Wednesday, downplayed his place in the legendary World War II saga of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen. He wasn't a pilot, said Rogers, who had been a master sergeant in the 100th Fighter Squadron. His work was on the ground, in logistics and administration.
Daniel L. Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base recently wrote about men like Rogers.
"Behind the Tuskegee Airmen pilots were many others who could also call themselves Tuskegee Airmen but who never got to fly an airplane," he said in a chronology of the group.
"They included maintenance personnel, ordnance personnel, quartermasters, guards, engineers, supply personnel, and other specialists."
Today Rogers lives on his own in a senior apartment complex near downtown St. Petersburg and walks the short distance every Sunday to services at historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 912 Third Ave. N. His 90-year-old sister, Gertrude Glover, lives in Mulberry. He moved to St. Petersburg in 1950 and eventually established a business, Rogers' Radio Sales and Services.
It wasn't until about three years ago that his two daughters, Felicia Rogers, in St. Petersburg, and Veronica Williams, in Douglasville, Ga., learned of his Tuskegee Airmen connection. They credit a woman named Cheryl Henry, whose mother attends their father's church, for the research that led to the discovery.
"I had a lot of questions," Felicia said.
The family did its own research when they traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2013 for President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
"We went to the inauguration and that Saturday, we went to the Library of Congress and then we saw his name, Willie N. Rogers, in the records, on a list of names of the corpsmen that were recognized as Tuskegee Airmen," Felicia said.
"I was like, wow!"
Her sister got a printout.
"I'm still very surprised and it's just that I've always thought of the Tuskegee Airmen as the pilots," Veronica said.
The nation's first black military airmen were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. During the ceremony, President George W. Bush saluted the group and spoke of wanting to offer "a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" they had endured.
"I was going to school to further my education when I was drafted," recalled Rogers.
Recently he showed the scars on an arm and a leg where he was wounded during the war, but, said the grandfather of four and great-grandfather of three, his injuries were slight.
He also spoke of witnessing the aftermath of Nazi crimes at Dachau, the concentration camp in Germany liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. He arrived after.
"It was terrible," was all he would say.
In 1948, President Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces.
"It was too late for us," the Tuskegee Airman said.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.