Advertisement
  1. News

Oldest remaining Tuskegee Airman, a St. Petersburg man, dies at 101

Family and friends of Willie Rogers, right, applaud after the Association for the Study of African American Life and History gave him a centennial pin at the St. Petersburg Museum of History in August 2015. Mr. Rogers also received keys to the cities of St. Petersburg and Lakeland.
Published Nov. 21, 2016

Willie N. Rogers was an American hero, and at age 101, he was a living example of the nation's history.

He was a member of the "Greatest Generation," which defeated the Axis powers in World War II, doing his part as a master sergeant in the all-black Tuskegee Airmen during the era of racial segregation in the U.S. military.

The longtime St. Petersburg resident died Friday from complications of a stroke.

He was the oldest surviving member of that original legendary 100th Fighter Squadron.

Mr. Rogers' nephew, Clinton Glover, said his uncle deserves to be celebrated for his contributions to this country.

But Mr. Rogers would be uncomfortable with any hoopla, Glover said. "He didn't like a lot of fuss," Glover said. "He was humble. That's who he was."

In 2007, President George W. Bush saluted 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen at the White House and apologized for any indignities they endured. They were then awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

But Mr. Rogers was not there, nor were his daughters Felicia Rogers of St. Petersburg or Veronica Williams of Douglasville, Ga., even aware that their father was part of the first African-American military aviation squadron in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces.

They knew he had served in World War II, but he did not reveal that portion of the story until 2012.

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.

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

But Mr. Rogers was involved in military action and was shot in the stomach and leg by German soldiers during a mission in Italy in January 1943.

He spent three months in a hospital in London and then returned to the war.

After Germany's surrender, Rogers witnessed the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. He arrived after it was liberated by American troops April 29, 1945, but his daughter wonders whether evidence of the horrific crimes there haunted him.

"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."

Still, the family worked hard to get him the credit he deserved after his Tuskegee service was disclosed in 2012.

Mr. Rogers received his Congressional Gold Medal in November 2013.

Also in recent years, he was presented with the keys to the cities of Lakeland and St. Petersburg. His portrait hangs in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman noted Mr. Rogers' death in a tweet Sunday: "Rest in peace, our friend — St. Pete's 2015 Honored Veteran and Tuskegee Airman, 101-year-old Willie Rogers.''

Born in Apalachicola in 1915, he moved to St. Petersburg after the war and established Rogers Radio Sales and Services that sold and repaired radios and other small appliances, said his daughter Veronica.

"He could fix anything," she said.

But she said his greatest attribute was his ability to love everyone unconditionally. Despite being mistreated as an African- American even while serving his nation, Mr. Rogers held no ill will to anyone.

"He recognized that we as people and he as a black man have come a long way but that there is still more to go," Williams said. "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."

Until recently he continued to walk the short distance every Sunday from his apartment in Burlington Towers to services at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

On Saturday, before a noon service honoring Mr. Rogers, his family will make that trek in his honor.

While the family is appreciative that the community honors Mr. Rogers' military past, Williams hopes her father will be remembered most for his life's motto.

"Treat everyone with dignity, pride and integrity," she said. "He said that a lot. And he meant it."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    No injuries were reported, according to Pinellas deputies. A tornado may also have passed over Interstate 4 in Polk County.
  2. The Florida Department of Transportation is installing lights on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as part of a $15 million project. During tests this weekend, engineers will illuminate the bridge in a pink hue to commemorate breast cancer awareness month. Courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation
    The Florida Department of Transportation is lighting up the span this weekend to commemorate breast cancer awareness month.
  3. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    The 63-year-old crossing guard was hospitalized, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
  4. Amber Perera looks out at the courtroom audience during her sentencing hearing at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Perera caused a fatal crash on the Selmon Expressway in Tampa in August, 10, 2017 that killed Rita and Luiz Felipak and their 8-year-old daughter Giorgia Felipak. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    Amber Perera is responsible for the 2017 crash that killed a family of three. She hopes to avoid a life sentence. The judge is still deciding.
  5. Tampa Bay Lighting host a watch party on the beach at the Tradewinds resort on St. Pete Beach in February. LUIS SANTANA  |  Tampa Bay Times
    TradeWinds is the biggest resort in Pinellas County.
  6. A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from over Tampa Bay.
    The news that the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation wants to change its name to include “Tampa Bay” has been met with resistance.
  7. Yesterday• Hillsborough
    Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    University police say a woman fell to her death Friday afternoon from near the top of the 8-story parking facility.
  8. Alec J. Roarks, 27, has resigned his position at Connerton Elementary School.
  9. A driver lost control and plowed into the garage of a townhouse in the 21400 block of Clubside Loop in Land O Lakes. The homeowner was in the garage at the time but was not injured. The driver suffered minor injuries. But the home's occupants had to leave because of the damage. Pasco County Fire Rescue
    The car drove through a garage wall. The homeowner was inside the garage at the time but was not injured.
  10. The Whole Coffee Company makes Dunkin’-branded Coffee Thins as well as Tim Hortons Double Double bars and its own Whole Coffee Company-branded nudge coffee bars. (Photo courtesy The Whole Coffee Company) The Whole Coffee Company
    The Whole Coffee Company, which is based in Miami, was previously known as Tierra Nueva Fine Cocoa. ProspEquity Partners of Tampa owns a majority stake in Whole Coffee.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement