By all accounts from his family, Willie Rogers, 101, did not like to talk about his time in World War II. His family knew he served but for many years they had no idea that he was part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black fighter squadron that never lost a bomber and contributed significantly to the destruction of the Axis powers during the war. Rogers was a sergeant and worked as ground crew in logistics and administration, a vital wartime function. Last Friday, Rogers died due to complications from a stroke. He was the oldest surviving member of the famed group.
He died at his longtime home in St. Petersburg, Florida with family gathered nearby. According to family members, Rogers was humble and didn’t like a lot of attention for his wartime record. When former President George W, Bush gathered 300 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, Rogers was not present because he felt that as a ground crew member he did not deserve the same accolades as pilots. At the 2007 ceremony at the White House, the members of the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and an apology for the racist indignities that the group suffered during the war.
Rogers did not come out of the war unscathed; he was shot in the stomach and leg by German soldiers during a mission in Italy in January 1943. He was not rotated back to the States after his injury and spent three months in a London hospital before returning to action. According to family, he was not spared the horrors of war and witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, hIs niece Veronica Williams of Douglasville, Georgia stated to media.
“He could give dates, names, locations of events from the war,” Williams said. “But he didn’t like to give specifics about what occurred to him. He saw things that were bad. And he experienced treatment because he was African-American that wasn’t fair.”
Rogers received his Congressional Gold Medal in 2013 and also received long overdue community accolades in St. Petersburg, Florida for his service in the war that included a key to the city and his portrait being hung in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.