Normally, history hangs on the walls of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, or is on display beneath glass tables.
But Wednesday, history was a living, breathing presence. Tuskegee Airman Lee Hayes, 89, of East Hampton, drew a standing-room-only crowd to the building — one that even overflowed into the halls — as he was honored by county and town officials. Among the honors: a proclamation signed by every one of the 18 members of the Suffolk County Legislature.
The Tuskegee Airmen have been receiving a lot of attention lately because of “Red Tails” — a movie about their history as the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The Airmen were America’s first black military fliers, and their exploits — while providing escort protection for U.S. aircraft, they never allowed an enemy plane to shoot down a single bomber — helped persuade President Harry Truman in 1948 to end segregation in the U.S. military.
Not all of the Tuskegee Airmen were fighter pilots.
A few of the 996 airmen commissioned as pilots went on to train for spots on bomber crews, including Hayes, who thought that being on multi-engine planes would give him a chance to be a commercial pilot after the war. He trained as a bombardier, and bragged he could drop a bomb into a garbage can from 1,000 feet.
But Hayes never found work as a commercial pilot. No airlines were hiring black pilots after the war. It took him years to find a job.
Suffolk Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), one of the officials who honored Hayes Wednesday, said returning veterans nowadays are facing the same problem. “That shouldn’t happen,” Schneiderman said.