One hundred-year-old Roscoe Draper shared his Tuskegee Airmen journey with Congressman Josh Gottheimer. In the late 30s, Draper enrolled at Hampton Institute and then wound up at Tuskegee to train black pilots to fly the PT-17 Stearman for World War II. Nicknamed “The Red Tails,” the Tuskegee Airmen had numerous combat successes and earned Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars and other honors.
Draper says the segregated military denied him enlistment in 1942.
“It seems that my color clashed with the color of the airplane,” Draper said.
For decades, Draper’s family thought he was only a civilian instructor. But just recently his family discovered a document that showed that Draper enlisted in the Air Force in October 1942 and was honorably discharged in November 1945.
His daughter, Norma Crocker, carried the document to the DMV to get Draper a nondriver ID. That’s where they encountered Bergen County Sheriff’s Officer Timothy O’Hare.
Office workers were questioning his paperwork because the military went to two-page discharge papers in the mid-50s. So O’Hare, a military vet himself, took the document to a manager to expedite approval.
“It’s our duty and our obligation as veterans to look after one another. And I’ll never forget he had a hat on and when I said did you know about the Tuskegee Airmen, his eyes lit up and from that point on he was like an audiobook,” he said.
O’Hare got the ball rolling for Gottheimer bestowing a specially minted Congressional Tuskegee Airmen Medal on Draper.
“The Tuskegee Airmen, as you know, certainly at the time for years did not get the credit they deserved. I’m glad that we have remedied that,” said Gottheimer.
Draper’s a member of the greatest generation, a member who prepared black airmen to defend overseas what their own country denied them at home.
“I thought it was horrendous that we were treated that way, but that was the way things were then,” Draper said.
“He said sometimes getting there he had to be careful about his transportation. Yes, there were hurdles that he had to have that we don’t have today but it didn’t stop him. In fact, they maybe sometimes made them more determined,” his daughter said.
Draper moved five years ago to live with Crocker in Bergen County. He’s among the shrinking number of Tuskegee Airmen and still earning medals for service decades later.