Luther E. McIlwain couldn’t walk through a store or across the street in Methuen without someone stopping to shake his hand.
People know a hero when they see one.
McIlwain, ever humble and gracious, was always willing to share his story with those who asked. Few have ever had a story to tell as interesting as his. McIlwain and his compatriots were members of an elite company, the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, a corps of black pilots who fought the forces of fascism in Europe and the forces of racism at home.
McIlwain died Friday at 91.
McIlwain was born in Blaine, S.C., and his family moved to the Merrimack Valley when he was 2. He was a 1939 graduate of Searles High School and attended Allen University in Columbia, S.C. When war broke out, recruiters ridiculed McIlwain for wanting to enlist as a pilot. McIlwain ultimately enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943.
At the start of World War II, flying was not an option open to black Americans. The military was racially segregated, as was much of American society. Blacks in the military were frequently assigned menial roles — flying the nation’s best combat aircraft was not one of them.
Nevertheless, the Army formed those African-Americans who had expressed an interest in aviation into the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group and began their training in Tuskegee, Ala. These individuals became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The fighter group gained fame for its steadfast defense of Allied bombers over Europe.
McIlwain was a second lieutenant with the 477th Bombardment Group. He was an instructor who trained many of the 1,000 pilots in the group.
The performance of the Tuskegee Airmen and other minority units in defense of our country made it increasingly difficult to deny black Americans full participation in American life after the war. The battle at home took longer to win, but it was won eventually, thanks to great Americans like Luther McIlwain.
In 2007, President George W. Bush honored the Tuskegee Airmen, presenting the unit with the Congressional Gold Medal. McIlwain was able to travel to Washington to receive the honor in the Capitol.
His sister, Glendora Putnam, remembers that day well.
“I’m very proud that the country saw what had happened and did something about it. It was sad that they had to wait so long for the country to recognize what they had done. I’m glad he was alive to be able to participate and meet again with his buddies,” Putnam told reporter Yadira Betances.
After the war, McIlwain served as a New York City police officer until 1968. He returned to Methuen on his retirement.
Yet even in retirement, McIlwain continued to serve. He held several administrative positions in Methuen, including the Office of Equal Opportunity. He was commissioned by governors King, Dukakis and Weld to serve on various boards relating to affirmative action and equal employment.
The Tuskegee Airmen, as with all veterans of World War II, are passing away. We were privileged to have Luther McIlwain living among us, to hear of his experiences and the exploits of his compatriots.
We extend our sympathy and condolences to McIlwain’s family and friends. And we honor his service to our nation.