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East Hampton's Lee Hayes, ex-Tuskegee Airman, dies

Tuskegee Airman bomber pilot Lee Hayes is shown

Tuskegee Airman bomber pilot Lee Hayes is shown in this 1945 photo. Credit: James T. Johnathan family

Lee A. Hayes of East Hampton, who bombed enemy forces from the cockpit of a B-25 during World War II as a member of the legendary all-black Tuskegee Airmen, died Wednesday at the home he built more than 60 years ago. He was 91.

His son, Craig Hayes, also of East Hampton, said his father died of natural causes and fought on two fronts: at home as a member of an all-black regiment formed because of his own country's incendiary period of racial segregation, and abroad as a nemesis to the formidable Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.

But he harbored no bitterness and sought no revenge for the indignities he endured during and since the nation's Jim Crow era, Craig Hayes said.

"He was a great man," he said, adding that his father displayed the patience and integrity of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and apartheid resister who died Thursday, but "on a smaller scale."

Hayes was a native of Mannboro, Va., who moved to the East End with his family in 1930, when he was 8, after his father found work on a dairy farm.

He attended public schools and, in 1943, became an apprentice and then was certified as a bombardier and joined the startup program for black aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. After the war and the military successes of the 996-member unit, Hayes became certified as a bomber pilot and entered civilian life, which had its own racial obstacles.

"After the war, we all put in applications with the airlines but none of us got called," he told Newsday in a 2011 interview. "I thought I had an advantage because I could really fly, that the airlines or some outfit would give me a job because I was good at it. I was all over looking for work, but nobody would hire me."

After Hayes felt he was discriminated against while trying to buy a home, he took $300 in cash to buy a plot of land in East Hampton and built the home where he settled with his bride, Marion Jones of Harlem, and lived there for decades. They raised a son and a daughter before his wife died in 1985.

Hayes worked many jobs, ranging from a janitor at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton to selling life insurance.

Craig Hayes said his father was pleased with Hollywood's portrayals of the Tuskegee Airmen in recent years, calling them pretty accurate.

Besides his son, Hayes is survived by a daughter, Karlys Johnson of East Hampton; a granddaughter, Crystal Hayes of Inwood; a grandson, Barry Johnson of Springs; and three great-grandchildren, Connor, Yori and Nuelle Johnson of East Hampton.

A funeral service will be held Monday at 10 a.m. at Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton followed by burial in Calverton National Cemetery.

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