Martin C. Evans

Terrelonge Never Flew Combat, Researcher Says

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

Victor Terrelonge, 1922-2011

Update:

The chairman of a research committee that verifies involvement in the Tuskegee Airmen said an early organizer of the group never flew combat missions in Europe as he had claimed.

“His records show he never went overseas,” said George Hardy, chairman of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.’s Harry A. Sheppard Research Committee. “He was a cadet, but only for three months. He washed out in primary training.”

The Airman, Victor Terrelonge, 88, died Monday at Nassau University Medical Center of complications of a stroke.

Records forwarded by Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. suggest that Terrelonge was an Army air cadet at Tuskegee in 1943, but never completed pilot training before his Army discharge after WWII’s end.

Nonetheless, the longtime Roosevelt resident gave frequent interviews to area publications and school and college audiences, offering first-hand accounts of aerial combat.

“I didn’t shoot down any planes, but I sent a few back home for repairs,” he told the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper in 2008. Two months later, upon hearing that the Tuskegee Airmen had been invited to attend the inauguration of President Obama, Terrelonge told Newsday he flew p-51 Mustang aircraft during five bomber escort missions over Germany.

Doubts about his accounts began to ripple through the remaining ranks of Tuskegee Airmen in recent years, troubling even some of his longtime friends.

“I kind of let it alone because he’s a good guy and he’s a friend,” said William Wheeler, a Tuskegee pilot from Hempstead. “But I never flew with him and I never met him while we were in Europe.”

But Hardy said because Terrelonge did train with the racially segregated cadet corps during WWII, he is properly considered a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Members of the group were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian honor – in 2007.

Hardy said he never spoke directly with Terrelonge during a yearlong inquiry into his claims, and does not know whether the discrepancy between the record and Terrelonge’s accounts represent a failure of memory or a willful effort to deceive.

Terrelonge, a native of the West Indies who immigrated from Jamaica to New York City in 1937, studied aeronautical engineering at City College. But when he tried to enroll in the Army’s pilot training program in the early 1940s, he was turned away because of the military’s policies of reserving coveted specialties for white personnel.

His fortunes changed because of an experimental training program for black pilots that had been put in place in 1941 by President Franklin Roosevelt. Terrelonge won admission into the program by passing a written test, then chugging water before his physical to meet the minimum weight requirement.

Hardy said Terrelonge claimed to have flown with the 332nd Fighter Group’s 302nd Fighter Squadron. Hardy said the 302nd disbanded in March, 1945, a month before members of the 44I class of Tuskegee cadets Terrelonge claimed to have graduated with arrived in Europe.

A daughter, Patt Terrelongue, is president of the Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., an organization that promotes the legacy of the nearly 1,000 pilots plus thousands more crew members who originally trained at Tuskegee. She also expressed doubt about her father’s wartime service.

Family members describe Terrelonge as a calm and understanding father, who often displayed a quietly mischievous streak. “My mother would say our house was a three ring circus, and that my father was the ringleader,” said daughter Nadine “Toni” Barts, of Raleigh, N.C.

Wheeler said Terrelonge’s death leaves only himself and three other Tuskegee aviators known to have residences on Long Island – Roscoe Brown, of Sag Harbor, Humphrey Patton, of Hempstead and William Johnson, of Glen Cove. Spann Watson, of Westbury, died last April at 93.

In addition to his wife, Barbara, and daughters Barts and Terrelongue, survivors include his first wife Yvonne Plummer, of Raleigh, and their daughers Sheila Wilson, of the Bronx, and Michelle Long, of DeSoto, Tx., Also, the children of his current wife: Jeanne Hayward, of Jamaica; Walter Craig Matthews, of Tampa Bay; Donna Lynn Matthews, of Bayside; and Jodi Smith-Bennett, of Sharon, Mass.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, at Memorial Presbyterian Church, in Roosevelt. He will be cremated.

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  1. I find it sad that as family and friends mourn the loss of a loved one, that your article is focused on discrediting him. Would it not have been more generous to simply recognize the loss of a man who did serve in some capacity rather than lead with such a negative statement and tone? I only hope someone shows you more kindness and generosity than you have shown here.

    • Thank you for responding. I have posted your comment. Writing things that are embarrassing to anyone is one of the hardest parts of journalism. Writing something that brings pain to a grieving family is even harder. But what are my choices? Mr. Terrelonge spent years accepting invitations to speak before audiences of school children and college students. He spread misinformation in several newspapers, including distortions that appeared in at least two articles I wrote for Newsday. His long and very public deception undermined the credibility of the brave men who actually did fly in combat, and who later often made civil rights sacrifices. The first draft the obituary I wrote for Newsday’s website Tuesday morning read: “Victor Terrelonge, who flew combat missions over Italy as one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen….” He had told me and others this time and time again. Would you really have it that I not try in some way to set the record straight? I take no joy in the pain this brings his family. I took a call to my home from his daughter at midnight last night, and spoke to her for nearly 15 minutes, and tried to assure her there was nothing personal. But my job as a journalist is to guard against spreading misinformation. In a perfect world, that reckoning would not come at the hour of his death. But because he insisted on being known in the community as “Victor Terrelonge, war hero,” any obituary about him must either perpetuate that falsehood or refute it. Journalistic integrity demands the latter.

  2. I REALLY STARTED TO MAKE A COMMENT CONCERNING YOUR SLANDEROUS AND DISRESPECTFUL ARTICLE IN WHICH YOU MISQUOTED HIS DAUGHTER AND LIFE LONG FRIEND! YOU ARE A TRULY DISGRACEFUL INDIVIDUAL! I HOPE NO ONE DOES SUCH A THING TO YOU OR ONE OF YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS WHEN YOU ARE NO LONGER HERE TO PROTECT YOUR INTEGRITY

  3. I disagree with your reasoning completely.
    You should have shown more class than to do the update on such a hurried basis.
    Nothing would have been lost to allow they loved ones to grieve with dignity.

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