This week, Feed Our Vets Founder & Executive Director was honored to meet Herbert Thorpe, one of the original World War II Tuskegee Airmen.
Mr. Thorpe is one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. His journey to become one of the few Tuskegee Airmen started in 1939, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal economic initiative, opened the Civilian Pilot Training Program to African Americans. (Hear an interview with Herbert Thorpe at WIBX950)
From the Boab Cultural Center: Born in Manhattan on January 9, 1923 and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Herbert C. Thorpe is the second oldest of six children born to Barbadian immigrants. He graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School (now Paul Robeson Technical School) and enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps – working as a clerk typist in Van Etten and Camden, NY and automotive mechanic in Beltsville, MD – before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves in October of 1942.
That December he enrolled in U. S. Signal Corps School in Troy, NY, and the following June began basic training at Kearns Field near Salt Lake City, UT. When he finished, he applied for and was accepted to cadet school. In early 1944 Mr. Thorpe traveled from Utah through California to Keesler Field in Biloxi, MS to take the aptitude test – and then on to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to begin the first phase of pilot training.
Most cadets went to advanced training after that, but Thorpe was selected for navigator-bombardier training first. He was sent from Tuskegee to gunnery school in Florida – where he learned to operate the belly turret in the multi-engine B-17 plane – and then back through Tuskegee to bombardier-navigator school at Midland Airfield in Texas.
Herbert C. Thorpe was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant Navigator Bombardier on December 30, 1944. Because the Armed Air Forces were not integrating multi-engine air crews then, Black navigator-bombardiers had nowhere to go.
“They sent us back to Tuskegee Army Airfield where were went into advanced flying training to operate multi-engine aircraft. We were then qualified as a B-25 pilot,” Thorpe said.
After an honorable discharge in the summer of 1946, Mr. Thorpe returned to Brooklyn. He worked for the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Postal Service before enrolling in New York University under the G.I. Bill. He earned his Bachelor of Electronic Engineering degree in 1953, and was employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then on to Griffiss Air Force Base in rome, NY the following year. Mr. Thorpe retired from Griffiss in 1983, and a year later went to work as a part-time guidance counselor at Mohawk Valley Community College until 1996.
As a prominent member of the Rome, NY community, he helped to charter the Rome Branch NAACP, and served as its first secretary and for ten years as president. He also is a charter member, past president and recent past secretary of the Mohawk Valley Club of Frontiers International. He was also a charter member and secretary of Prince Hall Military Lodge No. 112, and a past member of the advisory board for the Oneida County Office of Aging.
Mr. Thorpe and his wife Jessie, who have been married for over 62 years, together helped to found the Afro-American Heritage Association in Rome.
Herbert C. Thorpe is a current member of Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated, Claude D. Govan, Tri-State Chapter, NY. He has received numerous awards and recognition for his civic and humanitarian contributions, including the Medal of 1977 from the Rome Historical Society in September 2012, and the prestigious “Roses for the Living” Award from Rome Rotary in June 2005.