Veterans Day: Tuskegee Airman last known Delaware native to serve in esteemed group

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Friday, November 11, 2022
Tuskegee Airman last known Del. native to serve in esteemed group
The last living Delaware native to serve as a Tuskegee Airman has quite a story to tell.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Veterans Day is a time to honor those who served. But many veterans who served during the time of segregation didn't receive their honors until decades later. That includes the famed Tuskegee Airmen who were the first group of African American pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The last living Delaware native to serve as a Tuskegee Airman has quite a story to tell. It all begins with a framed sepia-toned photo showing Nathan O. Thomas in his full uniform. The picture was taken on the very day he enlisted as a Tuskegee Airman.

Thomas was drafted into World War II in 1945 at the age of 18.

"I had completed my first year at Delaware State University," he said of his time before getting the draft notice.

Once he showed up to serve, it didn't take the Army long to realize that Thomas belonged with the best.

"I took that test," he recalled. The guy says, 'Boy, wow! How'd you get that good score?... I'm gonna have to send you to Tuskegee.'"

When he arrived at the Tuskegee air base, Thomas saw something he'd never seen before: multitudes of Black men who were training to become pilots or keeping aircraft functional while running the base.

"I looked at all those men," he said. "They were the greatest soldiers. Looking sharp!"

Thomas knew he needed to become one of them.

"I said, 'This is where I need to be,'" said the 96-year-old.

Thomas served stateside in operations. He gave out flying orders for the pilots to complete.

In 1941, the Tuskegee Airmen were formed by the U.S. military but never meant to fly. Racially biased notions created the assumption that Black men couldn't fly planes. But then, the Army needed more men to serve in World War II. That's when the Tuskegee Airmen got the go-ahead to fly. The Airmen flew more than 1,200 missions with great success, but many, including Thomas, didn't get the thanks of a hero.

"What was given to him was little to none," said Thomas' daughter, Nathania Johnson. "Others got more. He didn't, so he just kind of pushed that aside and moved on in life."

Thomas went on to have a career working for the School District of Philadelphia. He didn't discuss his time as a Tuskegee Airman... not even with his own children.

"I knew he was in the service, but never knew he was a Tuskegee Airman," said Johnson who only found out in her adulthood what her father had achieved.

Decades after their service, the Tuskegee Airmen finally began to get the accolades they deserved including the Congressional Gold Medal, which was issued in 2007 by President George W. Bush.

"(People are) finding all the unknown things we were involved in," said Thomas of the service he and his military colleagues previously weren't credited for.

At 96 years old, Thomas now proudly shares his story which is an inspiration to others.

"I just met a young man two weeks ago," said Thomas. "He wants to be a pilot!"

Thomas estimates there's a maximum of a couple hundred Tuskegee Airmen still living with many of them in their 90s. It's the reason he devotes so much of his time now to making sure the Tuskegee Airmen are never forgotten.