Woody Crockett grew up in an Arkansas sharecropping community and aspired to be a mathematician. But in 1940, when he could no longer afford the community college tuition in Little Rock, he decided to join the military.
He enlisted in one of the first black units in what was then the Army Air Corps. Living as a private on a salary of $21 a month, he soon was drawn to a recruitment poster that read: "Be a pilot, bombardier, navigator and earn $245 per month."
"It didn't take too much math to figure that one out," he told The Washington Post in 2003. "So I went for it." The advertisement was an enticement to join a flight school in Tuskegee, Ala., that would help train the military's first black fighter pilots. The unit was formed under pressure from civil rights groups and helped pave the way for a fully integrated U.S. military after the war.
Lt. Col. Crockett, who retired from the Air Force in 1970, died Aug. 16 at the Knollwood military retirement community in Washington, D.C. He was 93 and had Alzheimer's disease, said his daughter Marcia Crockett.
During his career, he logged about 5,000 flight hours as a command pilot, including 149 combat missions during World War II and 45 combat missions during the Korean War.
Crockett earned his wings in March 1943 and reportedly was the 79th black pilot to graduate from the Tuskegee program. He was deployed to Italy in January 1944 with a fighter squadron that received second-class treatment all the way.
He faced bigotry from fellow Americans who, in some instances, showed more respect to German prisoners of war. Watching movies during free time, Crockett told The Post, "the German POWs could also go into the theater, but the black soldiers had to sit in the balcony in the back. We called it the Crow's Nest. Things weren't too glamorous."
Many of his World War II missions involved escorting bombers and surveillance aircraft flown by white pilots. One of his most dangerous assignments took him on a run over Berlin in March 1945.
"We were told to expect jets," he told the Air Force Times in 2002. Pilots from his group downed three German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters, he said.
Crockett joined the newly formed Air Force in the late 1940s, graduated in 1953 from the Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, and rose through the command ranks.
He was a radiological safety officer in 1951 during the atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands and helped lead tests for the F-106 Delta Dart fighter plane in the late 1950s. After his retirement, he spent six years with a National Guard office that recruited blacks and women.
"You just have to have perseverance. Set your goal and go for it," Crockett told a Richmond, Va., audience in 1996. "Hell, if you wait for the playing field to get level, you may not do anything."