For most of his life, former second lieutenant Ivan James McRae Jr., a B-25 pilot who was among the last of the Tuskegee Airmen, rarely spoke of his 1945 involvement in a standoff that helped end segregation in the U.S. military.
But when a white commander at Freeman Army Airfield, Indiana, ordered McRae and other black officers not to enter the post’s whites-only officers club — and to use the all-black club called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” instead — McRae found himself at a critical moment of history.
McRae, a Harlem native who settled on Long Island after the war, and raised four children at his Dix Hills home, died there Nov. 29. He was 93.
What became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny was a series of peaceful demonstrations in April 1945 by black Army officers who had been transferred to the Midwest airfield after racial altercations at airfields in Michigan and throughout the South.
In all, more than 100 black officers were arrested for entering the officers club, or for refusing to formally accept the legitimacy of the club’s whites-only designation, according to a 1997 Air Force document.
“Many of the pilots …. had flown in Europe as fighter pilots and …. were refused the use of the Officers Club because of their color,” McRae said in a 2010 oral history he made with his granddaughter, Briana R. McRae.
The standoff persuaded the War Department to side with the protesters, and for the first time to place black officers in command of McRae’s all-black 477th Bombardment Group. Three years later, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered the end of racial segregation in the U.S. military.
“He never talked about it too much, because he considered the fighter pilots, who actually fought in Europe, to be the real heroes,” said Brian McRae, one of McRae’s three sons.
“In the short run, it led to greater segregation, because it removed white officers from the 477th,” said Daniel Haulman, who documents the Tuskegee Airmen for the Air Force Historical Research Agency. “But in the long run, it contributed to the desegregation of the Air Force and the military.”
Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrant parents, McRae was supporting himself as a railroad porter while studying mechanical engineering at Columbia University when America was pulled into World War II.
“I was down on the platform where the trains were when I could hear a lot of yelling and screaming up in the waiting room,” he said in the 2010 oral history. “I ran upstairs and they were talking about the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
He enlisted in the Army’s aviation cadet program, and in 1943 was selected for a first-ever program to include black men in pilot training, at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama.
Too tall at 6-foot-1 to fly fighter planes, McRae earned his wings as a twin-engine bomber pilot on Dec. 28, 1944, just four months before the Freeman Field Mutiny. The all-black program’s 996 pilot graduates eventually became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Although he was in training for missions against Japan, the war’s end spared him from combat.
After his discharge as a second lieutenant, McRae completed his bachelor’s degree at Columbia in 1948, and married Marjorie Cox that October. The couple eventually settled on Long Island, where McRae worked for various defense-industry companies, including Fairchild Space and Defense Systems, in Farmingdale.
“The recognition for the service of the Tuskegee Airmen like Mr. McRae is long overdue,” then-Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said in 2010, while presenting McRae with a facsimile of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded collectively to the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007.
McRae is survived by his wife; sons Brian, of River Vale, New Jersey, Alan, of St. Albans, Queens, and Donald, of Dix Hills; and daughter Beverly McRae, of Dix Hills. He was cremated.