Sixty-two years is a long time to wait for a thank you. More than half a decade after risking his life overseas as a fighter pilot in World War II, James McLaurin has gotten the recognition he deserved — a Congressional Gold Medal.
Mr. McLaurin, a resident of Oak Bluffs and Weymouth, was born in Newport News, Va. His father worked in the shipyard there and when young James was seven, his father took a job in the engine room of one of the ships, bound for Boston. The family — Mr. McLaurin was the oldest of three and his mother worked as a laundress — boarded a bus and rode from Virginia to a multiracial neighborhood in Roxbury.
It was the height of the Depression and, despite the color of his skin — Mr. McLaurin is black — he never felt different from his neighbors. “We were all poor people,” he said recently from the Oak Bluffs senior center, where he is a volunteer. “Whatever we had, we shared.”
He did, however, notice a difference between himself and his classmates. “The boys were all playing basketball and volleyball,” he said with a smile. “I was building model planes.” Mr. McLaurin’s love of flying started back in Virginia where he spent long afternoons watching Army planes as they practiced landing near his house. “I wanted to fly,” he remembered. “I wanted to be a bird.”
Three years after moving to the Northeast, he went up into the air for the first time aboard a sightseeing plane called the San Juan. By the time he was 14, he had begun hanging around Mullers Field in Saugus. For $5 a day, the pilots offered flying lessons. “I had an after-school job delivering groceries for a neighborhood market,” he said. “It took two weeks to save up for a lesson. The day he turned 16, he had in hand both his driver’s license and his flying license. “I felt free,” he said of flying the planes himself. “It was one of the most wonderful feelings.”
By the time he graduated high school, the war was raging overseas. The Air Force was highly segregated then. No training program existed for black pilots, and blacks were excluded from many Army jobs. But Mr. McLaurin knew he wanted to join and defend his country. “This is the only country I knew,” he said.
After a stint as an engineering trainee at the Boston Naval Shipyard, he took the physical and mental tests required to enlist. “I passed the mental test, I passed the physical test,” he said. “I failed the depth-perception part.” Rather than abandon his dream of flying, he worked with a doctor to correct the vision problem and, a few months later, enrolled in the United States Air Force.
From his tolerant neighborhood in Roxbury, Mr. McLaurin headed to Biloxi, Miss., for base training, and then to Tuskegee University in Alabama where he enrolled in the first civilian pilot training program for blacks in the country. The program at Tuskegee remained the sole and separate training center for black pilots until its closing in 1946.
“Tuskegee was the thrill of my life,” Mr. McLaurin said. “It was the dream of my life to go there and fly.” What he encountered in the South, however, was hardly thrilling. “The discrimination of Alabama and Mississippi,” he said, shaking his head. “You’d be wearing the uniform of your country and be in a train station and want a drink of water and there’d be a sign: Blacks Only. You’d need to go to the bathroom: Blacks Only.”
Mr. McLaurin spent nine months at Tuskegee before departing for Ratelli, Italy, as a member of the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, black pilots could not become bombers, and the job of the group was to escort and protect the white pilots in the B17 bomber planes. Mr. McLaurin served in Italy for seven months, during which time the 332nd escorted 1,500 planes and never lost a bomber. His squadron was nicknamed the Red Tails, after the red a member pushed to have painted on the backs of the planes. “He wanted our performance to be known,” said Mr. McLaurin.
Mr. McLaurin returned to the United States following his tour of duty and became a contracting officer for the federal government and later a general contractor. He and his wife, a hairdresser, bought a home in Oak Bluffs in 1948 for $3,500, and since then, he has spent half the year here each year. Until recently, he also continued to fly — in the Army Reserves, as an all-weather jet instructor, and as a pilot in his own commuter endeavor, Spectrum Airline. Ten years ago, at the age of 74, Mr. McLaurin retired to the Vineyard and gave up flying.
By the time he left the Air Force, racial tensions and restrictions in the Army had begun to loosen, and integration efforts were underway. “The Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars,” said Mr. McLaurin. “We fought one overseas and a war against prejudice here at home.” The second war was one not recognized until March of this year when President George W. Bush awarded surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal.
Mr. McLaurin missed the event; he was undergoing surgery in Boston. But last month, Sen. John Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, held a ceremony celebrating him and four other Massachusetts airmen. Mr. McLaurin, a modest man, welcomed the recognition. “The war ended in 1945. Our performance was known in 1945 and it should have happened then,” he said. “Here we are, 62 years later.”