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May 1, 2013

Frank Walker of Tuskegee Airman fame has died

Tuskegee Airman of World War II

RICHMOND — Frank Douglas Walker of Richmond, one of the last surviving pilots of the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, has died.

Mr. Walker, 93, passed away Sunday in his home, his son Charles Walker said.

His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the First Baptist Church on Francis Street.

Perhaps only one other Kentucky resident who was part of the historic group of black fighter pilots and support crews survives, Charles Walker said.

Mr. Walker had been in declining health for the past year and rarely left home, his son said. However, last year he managed to see the movie “Red Tails” that George Lucas produced about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Although he was a man worthy of great recognition, said the Rev. Robert Blythe, Mr. Walker was a humble man who never sought attention. Blythe will officiate at his funeral.

Mr. Walker grew tired of media attention related to his war service about 10 years ago, his son said, and he stopped granting interviews.

Like most combat veterans, Mr. Walker rarely talked about his war experiences, even with his family, Charles Walker said.

His father suffered burns to his hands and one side of his face when his plane caught fire during take off.

Mr. Walker was one of six graduates of the old Richmond High School selected to serve in the first U.S. military aviation program that accepted African-Americans, his son said.

In addition to Mr. Walker, his brother William Walker, Robert Ferrell, John Sam Harris, Carolyn Runyon and Louis Runyon Sr. were among the more than 18,000 black military personnel in the Tuskegee program.

Fewer than 1,000 in the Tuskegee program were pilots, and often they are the only members of the group recognized. However, the flyers always recognized and appreciated the ground crews who kept them in the air, Charles Walker said.

Carolyn Runyon, the only woman in the group from Richmond, was a nurse for the Tuskegee aviators. The Tuskegee Airmen’s association treats all who served in the unit equally, regardless of their jobs, said Charles Walker, who is an association member.

Mr. Walker initially flew combat missions from a base in North Africa and later from a base in Italy.

The flyers, called Red Tails because of the color of their planes’ rudders, were assigned to escort Allied bombers. They once were thought never to have lost a bomber they escorted, but recent research has found their record may not have been perfect.

Despite shunning the limelight, Mr. Walker attended the 2006 Kentucky Veterans Welcome Home Celebration at Battlefield Park where Gov. Ernie Fletcher presented Kentucky Colonel commissions to him and four Medal of Honor recipients.

Mr. Walker traveled to Washington, D.C., the following March where President George W. Bush saluted him and about 300 other Tuskegee Airmen in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony.

“These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency,” Bush said during a ceremony. “They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens.”

After the war, the pilots returned to a country that discriminated against them because of their race.

“Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly,” the president said.

Bush then saluted the airmen, saying he made the gesture to “help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” they had endured.

Their unit received a Congressional Gold Medal.

The unit’s Congressional Gold Medal went on display at the Smithsonian Institution, while each airmen received a bronze replica.

When Mr. Walker graduated from Richmond High School in 1938, he had been certified as a brick mason and stone cutter, his son said. He pursued college study for two year at the West Virginia Institute of Technology until the United States entered World War II.

He volunteered for military service and passed a written exam at the University of Kentucky that qualified him to enter flight training, his son said. When the Army later attempted to induct him into another program, he told Army officials about his exam score and he was sent to Tuskegee for flight training.

His father was very good at mathematics and an avid chess player, Charles Walker said.

Between combat missions, Mr. Walker and other Tuskegee Airmen often spent their time playing chess.

After the war, Mr. Walker returned to Richmond where he went to work as a brick mason. However, when he applied for a mortgage to build his own house, the bank said masons made enough money, but their work was not steady enough to qualify for a home loan.

He then took a job with the postal service that paid less than what he made as a mason. However, the steady work qualified him for a home loan, and he worked part time as a mason.

At first, Mr. Walker was a substitute letter carrier, which required him to learn every walking route in Richmond, his son said. Later, he was assigned a permanent route.

Mr. Walker also was an avid fly fisherman who tied his own flies. He gave the homemade flies to friends.

His father joined the military out of a sense of duty to his country when it was in danger, just as many others of his generation did, Charles Walker said.

He followed a similar call of duty in his job. When he applied for retirement, Mr. Walker was surprised to learn that he could not retire for another year despite having been on the job for 35 years.

He had missed work so rarely that he had accumulated about 52 weeks of unused sick leave, which he had to take before his retirement benefits would begin.

Bill Robinson can be reached at editor@

richmondregister.com

or at 624-6690.

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