The oldest remaining member of the U.S. Army's 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, affectionately known as the "Red Tails," died on Thursday, months before his 99th birthday. Family representatives say Brew O. Graham of Riverdale, Ga., passed away in his home. His wife, Evelyn, had died about a month before, on Aug.12.
Born in Greenwood, Miss., on February 20, 1915, Graham served as a mechanic with the Red Tails in World War II, and, at 98 years and seven months old, was the eldest member of the brigade still living. Graham was honored last year by Clayton County, which declared Aug. 7, 2012 to be Brew O. Graham Day.
"Brew Graham is honored today in recognition of the significant and historic role he played as a dedicated and proud veteran," the proclamation said. "He bravely accomplished a distinct time in history, overcoming many obstacles and challenges. At the remarkable age of 97 years old, Brew Graham is the oldest-living Tuskegee Airman and is celebrated for his commitment, perseverance, and lifetime achievements."
He was lauded on that day for his service in the armed forces and for what Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon called his part in history.
"This is a real war veteran," Wynn-Dixon told the Clayton News Daily on the day of his commemoration. "It's such an honor to be in the presence of a real hero, and someone who is a part of history and living right here in Riverdale."
In addition to his acknowledgement from Clayton County and the city of Riverdale, a statement from his family includes a proclamation of his military record, which states:
"[He] was an inspector at an advanced air base close to the front lines. Examined the planes and made a detailed report as to the amount of damaged or worn parts. Was a qualified all round engine and plane mechanic and assigned other mechanics to repair all damages. He then supervised and inspected their work and tested the planes including taxing it around the field before it was o.k. for further flying."
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military pilots in the United States armed forces. According to TuskegeeAirmen.org, the official website of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., "'Tuskegee Airmen' refers to the men and women, African-Americans and Caucasians, who were involved in the so-called 'Tuskegee Experience,' the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air."
The Congressional Gold Medal of Freedom was collectively presented to nearly 300 Tuskegee Airmen or their surviving widows, at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. by President George W. Bush on March 29, 2007.
Graham did not receive his medal then, but was given a three-inch bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal from Congressman David Scott in August 2012, according to TheGrio.com. It was the same replica presented to some 300 surviving Airmen who were present at the ceremony. The original medal remains permanently housed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.
He was finally awarded the medal after the George Lucas film "Red Tails" opened in theaters across the country and Evelyn wrote to Lucas to ask why no one had come to speak with her husband.
“My husband Brew Graham is a Tuskegee Airman with the 99th fighter squadron and is believed to be the oldest living one," she wrote. "He is 97 years old. No one has bother to get in touch with him. We live in Riverdale Ga. you have our e-mail address. He has a hearing problem so he does not talk on the phone (only in person) Why is he being ignored?”
Lucas sent the family posters and a copy of the film after verifying Graham's authenticity with military officials and members of the Atlanta chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
Graham's family is planning an open funeral for him at their church, Lakeland Christian Center, 6449 Church St., on Friday at 10 a.m. and is accepting donations. The family asks that any contributions be made payable to Watkins Funeral Home, 163 North Ave., Jonesboro, Ga., 30326.
(Photo: Graham with his wife (right), Mayor Winn-Dixon (left) and members of the Riverdale City Council; Courtesy of Clayton Daily News)