On Friday, May 23, Hiram Mann was laid to rest. After 92 years his body had given all it had to give.
He was my friend. I’m sorry to say I was not at the ceremony with his family, his illustrious peers, and others who witnessed a U.S Air Force honor guard attending to his interment. Rather, I was a thousand miles away attending the wedding of my son. It was a wonderful wedding, but I must admit, Hiram was on my mind the whole time. He was not your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill kind of guy.
If you ever find yourself searching for an example of how one man can make a profound and lasting difference in the world, consider Hiram’s life as proof.
Expand his contribution by the lives and efforts of the roughly 1,000 men who walked in Hiram’s shoes, shared his struggles, and committed themselves to achieving the ultimate victory they earned so well, and you’ve really got something.
Hiram was a Tuskegee Airman. Class 44-F. I have a photograph of his graduating class on my desk.
His nickname was Gremlin, because he was so short. Yet, height isn’t the only measure of a man. In so many other ways, he was a giant. In the photo he’s young, serious looking, and ready to risk his life to protect his homeland and its population. A homeland that treated him and people who looked like him fairly poorly.
Working as a bellhop at the Cleveland Hotel when World War II broke out, Hiram’s life was neither cushy or affluent. And as a black man in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was routinely assaulted with verbal abuse that would have a negative effect on anyone. Yet he persevered.
He once told me a story that stuck with him over the years, as it has with me. He carried the bags of a white family out to the nearby train station, hefting them up the train car’s steps and stowing them in the overhead storage compartment. A young white boy watched as he labored, then spoke. He said something to the effect of, “Daddy, why do they let niggers on the train up here?”
That’s a shocking sentence. And while the exact quote is lost to time and perfectly justifiable anger, the sentiment remains. I suspect only one word from that sentence was burned indelibly into Hiram’s memory. You know which one it is. It’s the one you wish wasn’t used in print. It’s the one you wish wasn’t spoken any more. But it’s the word that young boy used when referring to Hiram who was struggling to do his work with dignity and professionalism.
I consider it a testament to my friend’s courage and character that he was able to walk away from that scene and so many others, bruised but not broken. Yes, he knew how to move on.
His first application for flight training with the US Army Air Force, was unsuccessful. The rejection letter was callous, just as that young boy on the train had been. It said there were no provisions for “colored” pilots in the United States armed forces. Angered by the rejection Hiram balled up that piece of paper and threw it away. “I wish I’d kept it,” he chuckled decades later.
Hiram Mann was not a quitter.
It took three more applications for service before Hiram was accepted to the Tuskegee program. He and his peers faced all the trails and tribulations of any flight school candidate, with the added pressure of a raging world war that was not going well for the Allied forces, and persistent, pervasive racism.
Once their training was complete, wearing a set of wings on their chests, and with an overseas combat assignment, Hiram and his class made their way toward Europe.
While at the airport in Washington D. C. awaiting transportation, Hiram and a fellow Tuskegee graduate stopped into the coffee shop to grab a cup of joe and a donut. Looking sharp in their officer’s uniforms while in the nation’s capital, they were tremendously proud of their status. Then an elderly white woman stood up, raised her voice, and created quite a fuss, insisting that black men should not be allowed to eat in the same restaurant where white people were seated. The two men headed off to war without the coffee or donut they sought.
This is the environment Hiram and his peers lived in and suffered through day after day. Yet they fought to prove themselves capable, even exceptional, and they succeeded.
There is no doubt Hiram and his peers laid the foundation for President Truman’s decision to integrate the service — an unpopular but correct decision that led to the integration of schools and our society as a whole.
We’re better for those changes. But make no mistake, without Hiram Mann and his fellow Tuskegee pilots, mechanics, and support personnel, those changes might still be in the future rather than decades in our past.
Any of us would do well to respect their success and emulate it, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what we hope to do with our lives.
As for me, I will harbor affectionate memories of Hiram for the rest of my days. He and his fellows are true American heroes, not the Hollywood version or the Madison Avenue variety — real heroes.
Men who risked much and personally gained little. But in their footprints rests the future of a people — the American people — who should be united in pride by their admiration of men who gave so much of themselves and asked for nothing but hard-earned respect in return.
Via con Dios, Hiram. You made a difference.