Martin C. Evans

Tuskegee Airmen lose a pilot

In Uncategorized on December 12, 2009 at 8:54 am

The ranks of the Tuskegee Airmen lost one of their elite fliers Wednesday when Capt. Luther H. Smith Jr., an Iowa native who flew 132 missions in Europe before being captured near the end of WWII, died Wednesday at a hospital near his Villanova, Pa. home.

Smith, 89, who had a long career after the war as an aerospace engineer for General Electric, died of complications of an infection, according to his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He was captured Oct. 13, 1944 after the engine of his P-51 Mustang caught fire over Yugoslavia. A German SS officer asked him why he would risk his life for America if black people there were often the victims of lynchings and racial terrorism.

“He would become indignant and respond that he was proud to serve his country,” his son, Gordon, said.

Smith was among a group of black Army aviators who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen after completing an Army program to train African Americans as pilots during WWII.

Prior to the experimental program, offered at an airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama, the U.S. military’s policy of racial discrimination barred blacks from becoming pilots.

Smith was among the 994 black pilots who were commissioned during the program, which ran from 1941 to 1946. The 450 fighter pilots produced by the program served in all-black fighter squadrons, whose skill and reputation as bomber escorts made them among the most coveted during the war.

A funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Wayne Methodist Church, 210 S. Wayne Ave., Wayne. He will be buried at Arlington Cemetery at a later date.

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