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Suffolk pols honor Tuskegee Airman

Tuskegee Airman Lee Hayes from East Hampton is

Tuskegee Airman Lee Hayes from East Hampton is surrounded by politicians after being given an award in celebration of Black History Month from the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead Wednesday morning. (Feb. 15, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

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.



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