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Bertram W. Wilson
Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force
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From a press report: Saturday July 13, 2002

  Airman's Death Brings Outpouring Of Admiration

Since his death Tuesday, family members say, there has been an outpouring of support and admiration for Lieutenant Colonel Bertram W. Wilson, a decorated World War II pilot who fought in Europe and North Africa as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Wilson, 80, accidentally drowned in his swimming pool at his home in Ashford, said a spokeswoman for the chief medical examiner.

A memorial service is planned for July 21 at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. Wilson will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in August.

Wilson and other members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black aviators, overcame discrimination and racism to become an accomplished combat unit despite strict segregation in the armed forces.


July 13, 2002

Since his death Tuesday, family members say, there has been an outpouring of support and admiration for Lieutenant Colonel Bertram W. Wilson, a decorated World War II pilot who fought in Europe and North Africa as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Wilson, 80, accidentally drowned in his swimming pool at his home in Ashford, Connecticut, said a spokeswoman for the chief medical examiner.

A memorial service is planned for July 21 at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. Wilson will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in August.

Wilson and other members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black aviators, overcame discrimination and racism to become an accomplished combat unit
despite strict segregation in the armed forces.

"We were very much aware of the fact that in the States you couldn't go into a bar and have a drink. ... You couldn't go into the officers' club. ... Yet you still had your wings and your bars like anybody else," Wilson said in August 2000. "We were very much aware of that, but what was the alternative? Your country is still your country. It's the only country you have. It's still not the best. It could be better, and maybe one day it will be better."

For his World War II service, Wilson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters and the Bronze Star. He won
more medals as a combat pilot in Vietnam.

Even after the Tuskegee Airmen finished their training in Tuskegee, Alabama, and arrived at their base in North Africa, they had to fight for the right to risk their lives in combat. White commanders doubted the aviators' skill and courage.

But once given the opportunity to fight, the group quickly proved its worth.

Wilson was a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, a branch of the Army. He shot down four German fighters while flying the sleek P-51 Mustang. At his Ashford home hung a photograph of him standing next to his fighter, four swastikas painted on the side.

By day, the Tuskegee Airmen would fly fighter patrols or escort bombers on missions deep into Europe and Germany. By night, they were forced to sleep in segregated barracks and were not shown the respect accorded other pilots.

"You found guys who didn't believe you were a pilot even though you had wings," Wilson said in 1998. "If you had your uniform on and you passed a white enlisted man, he wouldn't salute you."

The Tuskegee fliers painted the tails of their Mustangs red, which won them the nickname "Red Tails." Soon, white bomber crews began to call them "Red Tail Angels."

During the war, bomber squadrons attacking industrial sites in Germany and elsewhere were suffering horrific losses. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, was asked whether his pilots could protect the bombers.

Davis - who died on July 4th at age 89 - saw the escort duty as an opportunity for his fliers. Although the fighter pilots were eager to score victories in one-on-one combat, they began the hard work of protecting the bombers.

Davis made clear to his men that their sole job was to protect the bombers. To drive the point home, Davis told his pilots that any who left a bomber to chase an enemy fighter would be grounded and subject to court-martial.

The Tuskegee airmen were the only fighter group never to lose an escorted bomber to enemy fighters.

After his service in World War II, Wilson left the service briefly and tried chicken farming, said his grandson, Cheo H. Coker. During the Korean War, Wilson returned to the service until his retirement in 1968. During his final years in the Air Force, Wilson served a tour flying RF-4C Phantom jets in Vietnam.

He later worked as director of personnel at the University of Connecticut, a position he retired from in 1979. He then went to work as affirmative action officer for the state Department of Education, retiring in the mid-1980s.

Although the performance of the Tuskegee Airmen was a point of pride for those who served, their exploits were not widely known until decades after the war.

In recent years, Wilson was a regular participant in events where Tuskegee Airmen gathered to talk about the racism they endured as well as the pride they felt for their combat record and for helping bring about desegregation of the armed forces.

"He was a good man [and] really modest about his accomplishments," said Lemuel R. Custis of Wethersfield, another Tuskegee Airman who was acquainted with Wilson during the war, but got to know him much better later during reunions and
special events.

"I like to think that most of us, as a result of all of our experiences, tried to really overcome some of those scars we had picked up over the years - some of the
mental and social scars," Custis said. "We tried to be good citizens in whatever city or town we thought we'd live our lives in."

Because of the influence of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Air Force was the first of the armed forces to desegregate, and actually began the process before President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which was designed to end segregation in the armed forces.

Coker said his grandfather was a larger-than-life figure who was an inspiration.

"He's my idol," Coker said. "Every time I think I've had it tough, I think of my grandfather and the stuff he went through, and I stop complaining and get back to work. I'm really going to miss him."

His daughter, state Social Services Commissioner Patricia Wilson-Coker, said the family has been touched by the outpouring of support from people in Ashford and elsewhere.

"My father's very respected by many people," she said. "Even though there's a great deal of sadness in his death, it's a comfort to know how much he seems to mean to so many people."

In addition to his grandson and daughter, Wilson is survived by another daughter, Valerie Wilson Wesley of Montclair, New Jersey; her husband, Richard E. Wesley,
and their daughters, Thembi A. Wesley of New York and Nandi A. Wesley of Montclair; and a close companion, Doris Cottrell.

His wife, Mary Wilson, died in 1987.

The memorial service is planned for 2 to 5 p.m. on July 21 in the Betty Tipton Room at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.


WILSON, BERTRAM W
LT COL   US AIR FORCE
VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 12/04/1942 - 10/31/1968
DATE OF BIRTH: 09/20/1921
DATE OF DEATH: 07/09/2002
DATE OF INTERMENT: 08/06/2002
BURIED AT: SECTION 68  SITE 2063
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY

Posted: 13 July 2002  Updated: 18 July 2004 Updated: 19 January 2006
Distinguished Flying Cross
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Bronze Star Medal