TAMPA — Most of the time, George Abercrombie was on the ground with a clipboard in his hand as pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen practiced their rolls and dives in the sky. Just the same, Congress recently honored his wartime service in Washington, D.C.
The fighter planes with distinctive red-tipped tails achieved distinction in a segregated Army during World War II, and were so respected that the bomber pilots they were escorting called them "red-tailed angels." The pilots may not have known that their guardians were African-Americans fighting in a segregated Army Air Corps. Cultural historians have credited black soldiers in World War II with leading the way to desegregating American society.
Mr. Abercrombie, a coal miner's son who completed successful careers in the military and later as an IBM manager, died Dec. 4 at his home in Tampa, where he had lived for the past 17 years. He was 87.
He was a genial man and good conversationalist with a knack for survival. He loved jazz, and enjoyed dancing at Harlem clubs with his wife. At home, he preached education and doing things his way under his roof.
He grew up in rural Alabama, at a time when African-American passengers on locomotives were assigned to sit in the first two cars, where burning embers landed on his clothes and seared his memory.
At 20, Mr. Abercrombie was drafted into the Army, initially with service troops doing menial labor such as picking up trash.
"Most of the officers were white and treated you as inferiors, at the time just a step above slavery," Mr. Abercrombie said in a 2007 interview.
He was then assigned to the Tuskegee Airmen, an experimental corps of 992 black fighter pilots and support staff whose very existence bucked a widespread belief that African-Americans would not make good fighter pilots. He maintained records that charted the progress of pilots as they learned their skills, be it flying in formation or performing acrobatic maneuvers.
Between 1941 and 1945, the airmen destroyed 261 German aircraft in more than 15,000 combat sorties in Europe.
"I think they were proud they had a unit of blacks, and they were actually doing something," said his son, Jules Abercrombie, 53. "They weren't driving trucks or digging ditches. But I don't think they knew they were making history, quite honestly."
In 1952 he met Edele Mellein, a German citizen who is white. They shared an affinity for dancing, but her family was apprehensive when she announced marriage plans.
"One relative said, 'Well, you don't know if his tribe will accept you,' " his son said.
They married in Germany in 1954. A year later, they moved to the United States, where it was illegal in several states for blacks to live with whites, even if they were married. The Army stationed him in New York, Texas, Arizona and, again, Germany.
Mr. Abercrombie retired in 1968 as a chief warrant officer. He got a manager's job with IBM in New York, and a bachelor's degree in economics from Empire State College.
He retired from his second career in 1992 and moved to Tampa. Friends and family sensed a wisdom in a man who neither sugar-coated life's harsher realities nor seemed consumed by them.
"You could look at his own life as the example and know he had made some good judgment calls in his life," said Celeste Armstrong, 42, a niece. "That always caused me to think he was doing something right, and led me to seek his advice."
He assumed the country had long forgotten about the Tuskegee Airmen, but a chance encounter told him he might be wrong. A Tampa auto mechanic lit up when he mentioned having been a part of the group. He learned there was an association, Tuskegee Airmen Inc., with a Central Florida chapter. Soon, he was wearing the group's trademark red blazer that matched the tails of their former aircraft.
It is hard to know just how many Tuskegee Airmen are still alive, said former Airman Donald Thomas, 83, president of the Tuskegee Airmen Historical Museum. "But I would estimate that there are probably about 35 to 50 pilots left, and 125 people all over the country who were associated with the experiment."
Accolades for the group's accomplishments eventually rolled in. Then-President Bill Clinton signed an order to establish a museum. In March 2007, Mr. Abercrombie and 300 fellow surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen went to Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal and be extolled by then-President George W. Bush.
While he enjoyed the recognition, Mr. Abercrombie remained modest about having served with the Tuskegee Airmen.
"Our attitude was, 'Hey, we did it,' " he said in 2007. "We never thought about how our experience would influence the future."
Mr. Abercrombie will be buried in his red blazer at Arlington National Cemetery.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.