Flier Pioneers To Be Honored Golf Day Is For 4 Tuskegee Airmen.

Posted: August 26, 2000

WILLINGBORO — When Roscoe Dabney and Ben Hardy met on a train more than 50 years ago, the two men - one a private first class from Lakewood and the other a master sergeant from Indiana - became fast friends.

They went on to become military classmates in Texas and decorated pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during World War II in a premier program that produced a cadre of men who came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Although the two corresponded over the years, it was without planning that they ended up living across the street from each other in Willingboro about 30 years ago.

Today, Dabney and Hardy are among four Tuskegee Airmen from Burlington County who are being honored at a golf classic at Rancocas Golf Club in Willingboro. The event, which honors airmen Dabney, Hardy, Thomas Mayfield and Charles Washington, as well as former Willingboro Township Manager John T. McHugh, will begin at 11:30 a.m.

The idea to pay tribute to these men and their accomplishments surfaced about a year ago when Roy B. Paige, special coordinator of the Willingboro Recreation Department, discovered that several of his friends were original members of the unit, which broke ground as the first unit of black pilots in the U.S. military.

"I had no idea they were original Tuskegee Airmen," said Paige, who also said the men keep a low profile in town.

They occasionally speak at school assemblies, but this was a chance to honor their contributions in a larger arena, he said.

Trailblazing for black Americans was a secondary priority for many of the young men entering the flight schools who were just eager to earn their wings and serve their country, said Dabney, 77, who was on active duty from 1942 to 1946.

"We had a war to fight," he said.

In the meantime, they were also fighting stereotypes about blacks and disproving assumptions by military officers that black troops couldn't think fast enough to operate complicated flying machines.

The first classes of aviators were trained as fighter pilots for the 99th Fighter Squadron, sent into combat in North Africa. Some men from the institute were sent to Texas and New Mexico for additional training. More than 400 men trained at Tuskegee and fought in overseas combat and distinguished themselves as top-notch fighter pilots. About 150 died in training or combat by the end of the war.

The local men are active in the Hannibal M. Cox Jr. chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, which meets regularly at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County. There are 34 members in that chapter, which encompasses the state of New Jersey.

There is a $75 entry fee for the golf classic.

Lauren Mayk's e-mail address is lmayk@phillynews.com

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