Martin C. Evans

William Wheeler, Tuskegee Airman, Dies

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2011 at 12:22 pm

[Update: Funeral arrangements, set for July 29, may be found here]

When William M. Wheeler was a sophomore at Howard University in 1943, he swallowed his racial hurt, boarded a segregated train in Washington, D.C. and headed south.

Ahead of him awaited a groundbreaking aviation program that would eventually train the 994 black pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Wheeler, 87, who died of heart failure early Tuesday at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y. would become one of them.

William Wheeler, at the 2010 funeral of fellow Tuskegee flier Spann Watson

“I hated the country at the time, and wasn’t sure I wanted to fight for it,” Wheeler, a 47-year Hempstead N.Y. resident, said in 2010. “But I realized that despite our nation’s injustices, even slaves had fought for this country and that black people had fought in every U.S. war since. I felt I couldn’t let that tradition down.”

As word of his death spread Tuesday, Wheeler was praised for his work to preserve the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were mostly forgotten by history until about 20 years ago. In the last years of his life, Wheeler frequently participated in oral history projects, traveling to schools, air shows and aviation museums across the country to tell the story of the black fliers.

“He understood the role of living history, and as a result, his inexhaustible energy saw him in classrooms, assemblies and constantly at Airpower,” said Gary Lewi, a spokesman for the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, where Williams frequently participated in historic programs.

He was born in Detroit on Aug. 20, 1923, the second of four children of Ada and Leon “Toy” Wheeler. His father, who is credited as Detroit’s first black recreation employee, ran the Brewster Recreation Center – later renamed Brewster Wheeler in Leon Wheeler’s honor. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson learned boxing there during his tenure.

His father’s job shielded the family from economic hardship, but not from the racial animosity directed at the city’s growing population of black southern migrants. Wheeler said the murder of a friend by a white mob helped persuade him to leave Detroit and attend Howard University.

While Wheeler was at Howard, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to end the military’s refusal to train black pilots. With the eyes of the world watching in 1941, the Army began an all-black flight school at Tuskegee, Alabama.

Wheeler took an aptitude test, scored well, and in 1943 went to Washington’s Union Station to catch a train south.

He was surprised to find that the coaches were segregated, and blacks were restricted to seats behind the train’s sooty engine and coal car. “I tell people that when I left Washington I was brown, but by the time I got to Keesler Field, I was black, as were all of my possessions,” Wheeler told Newsday in July, 2010.

After he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on March 12, 1944 – with Tuskegee’s 44C cadet class – he was assigned to Walterboro Army Airfield, in South Carolina. He received additional aerial training there from Tuskegee graduates who had already flown in combat, including Spann Watson. Watson, a longtime Westbury resident, died last year.

Black pilots who flew to liberate Europe during WWII were forced to train and fly in segregated units. (photo: Library of Congress)

He was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, in Ramitelli, Italy, and flew strafing and bomber escort missions over Europe. But his combat career was cut short on his his sixth mission when a respiratory ailment caused him to black out at 36,000 feet. His P-51 dove more than five miles before he regained consciousness.

After his honorable discharge in 1945, he met Minnie Jenkens, an 18-year-old high school student, on a Harlem street corner. Two months later, they were married.

“I was engaged to someone in Detroit at the time, but when I met Minnie, I knew that was over,” said Wheeler, whose marriage endured until her death in a 2004 pedestrian accident. “She was the love of my life.”

After the war, the rapidly-expanding commercial airline industry began snapping up military pilots, who were among the best-trained, most cool-headed fliers in the world. But none of the Tuskegee aviators were hired. (Airlines did not begin hiring blacks until 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled that Continental Airlines’ refusal to hire Air Force veteran Marlon D. Green, a black pilot with nine years of experience, was discriminatory. Last year, Continental named its newest Boeing 737 in honor of Green, who died in 2009.)

Undaunted by the airlines’ rejections, Wheeler completed night classes at the New School for Social Research, started a family that would include three children, and worked in both the publishing and aircraft industries. He retired in 1990 as an administrator with National Westminster Bank.

Survivors include three children: Scott Wheeler, of Emeryville, Ca., Derek Wheeler, of Riverdale, and Cameron Wheeler, of Yonkers.

Asked in July, 2010 how he would like to be remembered, Wheeler said he was happy to have lived to see the long-ignored achievements of the Tuskegee pilots win societal recognition. In 2007, he was in attendance when President George W. Bush collectively presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian award.

“I would just want to be recognized as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots to fly for Uncle Sam,” Wheeler said. “We had a proud record, and eventually we were deemed to be heroes.”

  1. Thank you for a touching story, Martin. I’ve had the honor to meet and speak with Col. Wheeler many times at the American Airpower Museum. He was a gentleman, and real American Hero.

  2. I am so very proud to say that I am the granddaughter of William M. Wheeler. My grandfather was exceptional all around. He was always there for his family and we are so blessed that we had him for 87 years. For all those who read this, thank you and God Bless.
    RIP Granddad….we love and miss you and pray that you and Grandma are eternally reunited.

  3. I met Bill Wheeler for the first time when accompanying Gottfried Dulias, WW II Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot.
    Bill was a charming man with charisma. Until then I was not at all aware of the Tuskegee Airmen and he enligtened me about it. He will be greatly missed – He will be down in History as a great legend

  4. Col Wheeler and fellow Tuskegee Airmen were American heroes. Their service in the face of racism forced our country to speed up the push for civil rights. I graduated from the USAF Academy and became an AF pilot after being inspired by Col Wheeler and the Tuskegee Airmen.

  5. I just read the exciting life story of Tuskegee Airmen WILLIAM WHEELER, I am a black
    historian and I did not know Mr. Wm Wheeler personally but I wished I had. I have done
    a good deal of history research on the Tuskegee airmen and I love reading their individual stories of how they each became Tuskegee Airmen and I am constantly amazed at what they endured and even more amazed at what they accomplished. I will add his name and this beautiful story to my endless list of our black aviation heros and
    I wish to convey my deepest sympathy to his surviving family.
    Tyrone Haymore, Historian and Director of the Robbins History Museum
    P.O. Box 1561
    Robbins, IL 60472
    (708) 389-5393

    • Hello Mr, Robbins

      I was very happy to see your commentary on Mr. Wheeler. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Wheeler at a Black History program a year ago. I am a history lover and a storyteller. I told Mr. Wheeler that I had recently visited the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island. I shared the fact that I was disappointed that there was barely any information on the Tuskegee airmen and absolutley nothing on Bessie Coleman. I was appalled, especially considering the fact that Mr. Wheeler lived a few miles from this museum and Bessie Coleman did her first exhibition flight in the same are of he museum.
      I did write to the museum back in February, I received no respone. I also contacted our Councilwoman and she contacted the Nassau County Executive.Still no response.
      I attended Mr. Wheelers and I watched as several of Mr. Wheelers fellow Tuskegee airmen paid tribute to him. As I watched these brave men, that are now in their 80’s and older, I kept thinking of my misiion as a storyteller. We must preserve these stories, we are slowly losing our Tuskegee Airmen. I reminded myself that I must keep fighting for some form of recognition and representation of the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen at this Long Island Museum, If you have any suggestions or comments, please feel free to share.
      Thank you

  6. I had the great honor and pleasure to get to know Bill who grew up in Detroit and went to high school at Northwestern High with my father, Rufus Johnson, and people like Judge Damon J Keith. Last year, on Bill’s Birthday, I had the great pleasure to reunite Bill and Judge Keith. I sat in their meeting – taped it – and listened to their stories. It was inspiring, to say the least. Bill was traveling around the country, actively reminding – even teaching for some – people, our nation, about the Tuskegee Airmen. He was disturbed by the fact that they are barely, if at all, mentioned in the history books that our youth are given. He was still very active and strong – mentally and physically. My generation – the black men – need to learn from the lives of other black men like Bill Wheeler – the universal and timeless principles by which they led their lives – personal, professional and community. We have much to do…

    Dean Rufus Johnson
    Detroit, MI
    djohnson@globalGIR. com


  8. Bill was a very special and gracious veteran. He was truly a remarkable man. We had the pleasure of meeting him through Frank Hayes, Pres. of the AFA of New York’s Iron Gate Chapter. He was so kind to answer my letter of request for an interview for one of our teens, whose heroes are the Tuskegee fighter pilots of WWII. I will never forget the phone call he made to me after he received my letter. He volunteered to interview and give an oral history about his life with the young student so he could write an essay for our annual scholarship competition. The essay placed an honorable mention in the 2010 awards and is included in the resulting book of essays, America’s Soldiers: Teens Tales Of Tribute. Needless to say Bill’s time and mentoring of the young student made a lasting impact on the life of the young man as well as my own. I will always be honored to have known Bill and will never forget one very incredible thing he said to me during that first phone conversation. In my letter I had told him my dad was a WWII Hump pilot that flew the Himalayas in the first great Air Lift in history; Bill asked me on the phone about my dad’s flying those dangerous missions and then he said, “Your dad was a hero.” I will never forget his words nor can I ever forget him. I consider his friendship to our organization a true gift. Sincere condolences on his loss to his family… Bill will live in many American hearts for years to come.
    Lynn Geddie
    Director, American Veteran Project
    Communication Director, Coweta Commission on Veteran’s Affairs

  9. Bill Wheeler was truly a terrific role model in all aspects of life. I always enjoyed talking with him, over the phone or in person, about life, family, health, the Tuskegee Airmen, his past and future presentations on these great pilots.
    It is so hard to say the last goodbye. We will always miss him, but we are lucky to have known Bill Wheeler as a family friend.
    Micheline Johnson

  10. What a friend we had in Bill. Always funny always wise. Honored just a few months ago by the Top Ladies if Distinction, Inc. for being an inspiration and guiding light to the youngsters of the community. He was a hero and confident to my son who was encouraged to become a pilot. Bill was behind him al the way to his becoming a Captain. I will miss his wit and his candor. Fly safe Bill.

  11. I had the honor of meeiting COL William Wheeler at the American Air Power Museum over the Memorial Day Weekend. COL Wheeler and Americans of all genders, races and creeds answered the call to duty in World War Two. Heroes like Dorrie Miller, GEN Daniel “Chappie” James,Jr. and GEN Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. along with COL Wheeler serve as role models who fought our enemies and overcame racism on the homefront and in the military. My deepest sympathy to COL William Wheeler’s family and comrades. The war record of the Tuskegee Airmen is Second To None and along with their comrades in the U.S. Air Air Force they led the way to form the modern day United States Air Force. God rest the soul of COL William Wheeler.

  12. I am Proud To Be An African-American!! Col. Williams along with a roll call of brave men and women endured grave sacrifices which has enabled my generation and generations to come opportunities they were not able to reap. You Remain in Our prayers…

  13. Andrew and I (cousin Gertrude) are so proud to have known Bill down through the years . He was truly an asset to the Harris Family. He spoke at our Harris Family Reunions. Every left feeling filled with so much living Back History. He will truly be missed in our family. May God bless his family whom he left behind. Please if you must shed tears, be sure that they are tears of joy. That’s what he would have wanted Our prayers are with the family.

    Gertrude Harris Turner and Andrew Turner and all of the Harris Family

  14. As a a child growing up in Buffalo, NY I thought Cousins Bill & Minnie were 2 of the jazziest “old” folk I knew. I always looked forward to their visits. I was an adult when I found out about Cousin Bills’ history as a Tuskegee airman and that filled me with even more pride and respect. In October 2004, I was blessed with the chance to stay with Bill & Minnie while I was doing some auditions in NYC. I had such a great time with them; hearing the old stories of my elders and just watching the love between the two of them. I am thankful that I stayed in touch even after Cousin Minnie’s death. Loved hearing Bill call me “A Special Lady”. My life has been truly blessed by knowing him. Miss you, Cousin Bill!

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