WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — A local Tuskegee Airman is recalling his time in the service.
Dr. Harry Quinton is 92 years old and lives in Williamsburg.
He’s a member of the Tuskegee Airmen-Tidewater Chapter and is also the chairman of the group’s speakers bureau.
“The fellow I work with used to say, who’s going to tell the story. So, I enjoy it and it’s rewarding. I get all these accololdades and attention. It feels good. Makes me feel good,” he said.
That attitude carries over through his joking personality.
Through his jokes and laughing, you’d never know he’s experienced a tough life.
“Life isn’t easy but I always had the attitude, if I could just get in and show what I could do, I could survive. It was a matter of survival,” he said.
Quinton was 16 years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
He says at the time, he didn’t even know where Hawaii was, but knew that America was headed to war in the late 1930s.
Instead of waiting to get drafted and ending up getting sent somewhere he didn’t want to go, he enlisted in the Army Reserves.
He trained to become an airplane mechanic, so he could be picked for the Tuskegee Program at Hampton, but he failed his final test, depth perception.
He reported for duty at Fort Lee before he was sent to Daniel Field in Augusta, Georgia.
Quinton says that’s where he saw how differently blacks were treated in the military.
Quinton says blacks could only go to the post exchange only one day a week at a certain hour.
When he went, he saw something he’ll never forget.
“They had German POWs who were laying around and drinking sodas, smoking cigarettes, having a good time. I said ‘wow! They’re treating German prisoners better than they’re treating us,’ ” he said.
From there, Quinton went to the North American Aviation Plant in Inglewood, California and worked with the 477th Bombardment group, which was part of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We knew what we were doing was something we hadn’t been given an opportunity to do before. We also knew that everybody thought we couldn’t do it,” he said.
Quinton remembers watching pilots from the program fly for the first time.
“That was very satisfying,” he said.
Quinton says he never went abroad to fight.
Instead he went to Godman Army Airfield and Freeman Field and saw how officers tried separating the races.
He was there at the Freeman Field Mutiny, where dozens of African Americans were arrested for peacefully entering the officers clubs the base’s commanding officer banned them from.
Quinton says blacks in the military were fighting two battles, the one abroad and segregation at home.
He says he’s always asked why they wanted to fight for their country.
“Say we as a people had decided we weren’t going to participate, it would’ve set us back another hundred years,” he said.
Quinton says his group was getting ready to be shipped out to the Pacific theater when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.
After being honorably discharged, he went back to Maryland and got married.
He says there, an employee wouldn’t give him his veteran benefits and he couldn’t find a job as an aviation mechanic, so he moved to New Jersey.
Quinton says he also had trouble finding a job there as an aviation mechanic. So he ended up using the G.I. Bill to attend college, where he received a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
Again, he says he had trouble finding accounting jobs, even though the newspapers had pages full of entry level openings.
“When I’d get there, they’d say ‘oh well you need this. You need that.’ I’d say ‘the job said I need no experience.’ Then, they’d start asking me a whole ton of questions. I knew what was going on. As soon as they saw who I was, their whole attitude changed,” he said.
Quinton says he got his foot in the door at a number of companies by working as a file clerk.
He eventually worked for Pan American World Airways and then worked for 23 years as an internal revenue auditor for the Department of Treasury.
Now he spends his time speaking about the Tuskegee Airmen and has a number of awards, including an honorary doctorate from Old Dominion University.
Quinton also attended two presidential inaugurations.
He says he’s blessed to have lived a long life and is in good health.
“I still play golf. I still try to get dates,” he laughed.
And his advice for those, who will face obstacles in life, is to be ready for your chance.
“I believe if you prepare yourself and the opportunity comes, you have to be ready,” he said.