History class gets lesson from history maker
SCARBOROUGH — As he showed the old pictures to a Scarborough High School history class, Jim Sheppard's matter-of-fact tone at times masked his enduring pride in the contribution he and others in his unit made to the country.
The faded and often blurred faces and airplanes from the presentation could have been photos from old war movies. But for those who hung on Sheppard's words, the two-dimensional reminders of another era became real and significant – each scene had a story; each man had paid a price.
"I knew him; he was shot down," Sheppard would say, or, "Three hundred bombers were sent up there every day," or "That pilot was killed during take-off."
Since he was 13 years old, Harlem, N.Y.-born Sheppard, 84, wanted to be in aviation. Around 1940, he attended Haaren Aviation High School in New York City, where he and his friends discussed their career dreams with little hope they would come true. And it wasn't because they weren't talented; it was because they were black.
But after graduation, at age 18, Sheppard joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and began training as an aviation mechanic for its first all-black combat unit, the 332nd Fighter Group. Informally known as the Tuskgegee Airmen, the troops trained for a year stateside before they invaded North Africa in 1942, during World War II.
During the war, he served as a crew chief for P-51 Mustangs, P-47
Thunderbolts, P-30s and Curtiss P-40s. Although he did not become a
fighter pilot, he said he "learned to fly on the fly," performing
acrobatics even during his first flight.
"All our instructors were white – they had to be because the Army never had black men in the Air Corps," he said. "One thing in their favor: whoever selected them did a (great) job."
Though he said the instructors never mistreated him and he never experienced discrimination overseas, it was a different story when he came home.
"We sensed it in the United States every time we went out on the streets," he said. "We got off the troop ship in Staten Island and segregation started all over again."
As Sheppard continued his commentary, students in the Modern America class remained quiet and thoughtful, absorbing what was acceptable 60 years ago that has become so unacceptable today.
But Sheppard never focused on the pain or indignation of being treated as an inferior; instead he spoke of the success of his outfit and the difference the Tuskegee Airmen made for future generations.
"After the war, President Truman decided to desegregate the military and I really believe it's because we were so successful in combat," he said later in a phone interview. "It took about five years to gel... from there, the tone all over the United States started to change, even before the civil rights movement. We did something awfully worthwhile in addition to just fighting the war – we helped to bring about changes, you're not thinking about that when you're fighting."
Those changes helped Sheppard get a job after the war. After working five years for the Postal Service, he obtained a position as an aviation mechanic at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. He later became an aviation safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and remained in that position for more than 25 years until he retired in 1987.
History teacher George Jones said he had invited Sheppard to speak to two of his classes to "make history real to students and to demonstrate the real-life connections between the textbook and their daily life." As a follow-up, Jones said students will interview a relative who lived through the war years and present what they've learned in a talk show format. Students in the school's video production class will film and edit the presentations, which will be aired on local access T.V.
Impressed by Sheppard's talk, several of the students said he helped them see they all had the potential to fight through adversity and do great things.
"You have to keep fighting for what you believe in even when other people are trying to bring you down," junior Kelly Thibeault said, following the Feb. 26 presentation.
Sheppard said he hopes students that hear him speak will be moved to work hard in school and "remember everything they're learning."
"Don't just memorize for exams but for the rest of your life," he said. "Lock it in there and it will bear fruit; it will put you in good stead no matter what career you go into."