ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Wallace C. Higgins isn’t a man who sheds many tears.
But on Veterans Day, as Higgins held his Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in New York honoring the Tuskegee Airman, things were different.
“I can’t say enough,” said Higgins, 91, who left behind his education in 1943 to join the U.S. Army. After aptitude testing and basic training, he was selected to be part of the Tuskegee Airman experiment in Alabama, and was trained in pre-flight at the Tuskegee Institute. “I don’t cry easily, but I do today.”
Now a retired Alfred University professor, he recalled one of his first early flights in Alabama.
“I flew over a circle of cows and they just looked up at me,” he said, laughing at the memory. “So I kept flying round and round over them, just watching them.”
Higgins was one of five Tuskegee Airmen honored on Friday at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo.
In 2007, the honor of the Congressional Gold Medal was secured for all men and women involved in the Tuskegee Experience, the Army Air Forces program to train African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft during World War II.
Brooklyn native Herbert Thorpe, 93, joined the Army Reserves in 1942. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and earned his B-25 pilot’s wings in October 1942. He, like Higgins and many other Tuskegee Airmen, was unable to attend that original 2007 ceremony.
“Not being able to be at that original presentation; this is very special to me,” said Thorpe, who also received a Gold Medal for his brother Richard Thorpe, who was killed during an orientation flight in Italy in 1945.
“I have to thank so many people for this special occasion,” he said.
More than 200 people gathered for the event amid the museum’s historic warplanes and military memorabilia.
Rep. Christopher Collins, R-N.Y., presented the medals.
“At a time in our history when African Americans faced tremendous prejudice, the five being honored here today remained committed to serving their country and laid the foundation so that anyone could serve, no matter their race,” he said.
Stephanie Keenan of Gates brought her sons Dylan and Logan, who had spent much of the week learning about the significance of Veterans Day.
“I wanted my children to see a piece of history being made right here,” said Keenan, noting that her father is a veteran. “Today has special importance to our family too.”
Bernadine Lutz of Rochester came to receive the Gold Medal for her cousin Leland H. Pennington, a member of the 301st Fighter Squadron who was shot down and killed while on a bombing mission over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
“This really is so wonderful and all members of my family, those with us and those who are not, would be so proud of this,” said Lutz.
She was accompanied by another Pennington cousin, Alfred Fields.
“It is important to note that African Americans have fought in every war this country’s had,” he said, adding that that history must never be lost. “And members of my family have fought in three.”
Also honored during the ceremony was Robert M. Johnson, a Pittsburgh native who enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943. He was killed in service on Dec. 5, 1944. Johnson’s next of kin were delayed in travel and unable to attend the ceremony.