A decorated Army pilot from Greenville — a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II — gets a hometown memorial next week.
Lt. Col. Paul Adams, a member of the group that broke racial barriers as the first black aviators in the U.S. military, died last month at 92 in Lincoln, Neb., where had lived and taught after retiring from the Army. But he never forgot the town where he grew up, and his family and friends have planned a celebration of Adams’ life.
His extraordinary life and accomplishments will be the focus of a July 26 ceremony at Watkins, Garrett & Woods Mortuary on Augusta Street in Greenville, in the city he still called home, his daughter, Gloria Middlebrooks, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
Adams, a 1942 graduate of the former all-black Sterling High School, soared into history after pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a pilot.
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The culture of segregation that existed as he was growing up was such that “they didn’t allow black people to go to the air base,” Adams told GreenvilleOnline.com in an interview last year, referring to the Greenville Army Air Base, now South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center.
The Tuskegee Airmen weren’t only the only black pilots in the American military during World War II, they were the first black pilots enlisted in the American military, said Daniel L. Haulman, chief of the organizational histories branch at the Air Force Historical Research Agency in Montgomery, Ala.
“It’s individuals coming together to fight a common enemy, and they did it well. There were no black pilots in the American military before that,” said Haulman, who has done extensive research on the Tuskegee Airmen. “And that’s probably the main reason that they are historically significant, because they proved the ability of black men to fly.”
He said that although there’s debate among historians, he believes their service set a precedent for ending racial segregation in the U.S. military.
Adams joined the Tuskegee Airmen after graduating from South Carolina State University. He flew with the 332nd Fighter Group, a unit also known as the “Red Tail” group for its distinctive aircraft paint.
The group flew 1,500 missions in Europe and North Africa. Adams served in nine major campaigns and received the Commendation Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters, each of which signifies subsequent bestowals of the same honor.
Adams and the other Tuskegee Airmen stand out as “really special men for what they did and what they accomplished to get into the Air Corps, to be trained, and then for what they did as pilots, protecting white bombers even though they were disrespected and there was prejudice,” Middlebrooks said.
“They kept going. It wasn’t easy, but these men, including my dad. were determined they were going to do it. Not everybody is like that,” she said.
The military transferred Adams to Lincoln in 1962. He retired a year later and began teaching industrial arts at Lincoln High School in 1964, becoming one of the first black public school teachers in Lincoln.
Adams told GreenvilleOnline.com last year, during the release of the movie “Red Tails,” a fictional portrayal of the Tuskegee Airmen, that he’s proud of his military experience.
“It was one of the greatest things,” he said. “It was an honor to do.”
In 2007, Adams received the Congressional Gold Medal for his contribution as a “guardian angel” — a name of respect given by white airmen who were escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen during the war. Doane College recognized Adams with the President’s Honor of Distinction Award the same year.
Two years later, at President Barack Obama’s invitation, Adams and other Tuskegee Airmen attended the inauguration of America’s first black president.
Paul Adams Elementary School in Lincoln opened in 2008 and a replica of his Congressional Gold Medal is encased in the school’s display case, his daughter said.
A statement on the school’s website said Adams retired from teaching in 1982, but “continued to serve his community” and was “an example to all of us.”
“Everyone who knew Paul Adams had a Paul Adams story and it was a positive one. It was hard to meet this man without liking him and being impressed with him,” his son, Michael Adams, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
His children were no exception. They looked up to him long before they fully understood the impact of his life on the nation’s history.
“We loved him as a person, as Dad,” Michael Adams said. “Even though we didn’t know the significance of his military history, we respected him and admired him in his own right.”
Adams, in his son’s view, was “Superman.”
“I felt honored that the man I could hug and shake hands with any time was also known as a national hero,” he said.
Michael Adams recalled an incident in Nashville that occurred while he was playing golf with a man who happened to be the same age as his father.
When the fellow golfer found out that Adams’ dad was a Tuskegee Airman, he stopped playing and walked over to shake Adams’ hand.
“He said, ‘Be sure to give that to your father.’ He had been one of the white bombers who’d been able to come back home because of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Adams said.
“That is the kind of honor that you can’t put on paper or on a commemorative pin. It was from one soldier to another and I’ve never forgotten that,” Adams said.
Paul Adams and Alda Adams, his wife of 67 years, never forgot Greenville, his children said. The Adamses and members of their families who continued to live here were “pretty well known” at Allen Temple A.M.E. in Greenville’s West End and throughout the community, Middlebrooks said.
The Adams children would spend summers with relatives here when they were younger, and in later years, Adams and his wife would come to visit every opportunity they could, Michael Adams said.
The family’s last visit to Greenville was in 2005, Middlebrooks said. They came to view the Sterling High statue at West Washington and North Main streets and do some sightseeing in the downtown area.
It was an important thing for Adams and his wife to do, Middlebrooks said, because “Dad and Mom both loved Greenville. This was home for them.”