Loved ones honor life of Tuskegee Airman John Harrison Jr.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- He was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal.

John Harrison, who lived in Philadelphia for 30 years, died a week ago Wednesday, and Thursday night his family and his admirers came to the Chapel of the Four Chaplains for his viewing.

To his daughter, Joan, he was dad. But to generations of people who came to see him off, Major John Harrison Jr. was an American hero.

"He did not tell us everything, and I understand it now," said John's daughter Joan Harrison. "Somebody had to make the effort and he did."

At 96, he was a living legend.

One of the original 20 Tuskegee Airmen, flying escort for heavy bombers during WWII combat missions.

A squad so fierce they were known as the "Red Tails".

In a 2012 interview with Action News, Major Harrison spoke candidly about his persistence to become the now fabled "Black Birds".

"He said, 'We don't people to be pilots'. The sergeant threw me out of the recruiting office. ... And he said, 'you again?' and I said, 'yes'. The captain said 'you really want to be a pilot, don't you?' I said "yes, sir, just like you.'"

"As a black man, it's a special deal to go above and beyond and meet the challenges because prejudice still exists," said John's cousin Andre McWilliams.

He admits he had no idea his cousin was a big deal until he saw the silver screen smash "Red Tails".

"I called him on the telephone, I said, 'hey John, I just saw the Tuskegee Airman movie, and there was a guy at the end, he looked just like you. He said, 'that was me!' " said Williams.

Humble to his final days, Harrison even received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush.

"God put him here for a special reason for America, not just black, but all of America," said McWilliams.

A funeral mass will be held for Harrison Friday morning at the Chapel of Four Chaplains, and he will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mr. Harrison was a recipient of the Medal of Honor - he was a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal.


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