Grace: Lincoln's Tuskegee Airman a war hero who overcame many obstacles -
Published Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 10:28 am
Grace: Lincoln's Tuskegee Airman a war hero who overcame many obstacles

He drove into Nebraska on a tornado, pulling over the family car until the danger passed.

It wasn't the first time Paul Adams faced a terrible storm.

He had weathered the Jim Crow South. He had survived the embattled skies above Italy, where he protected Allied bombers in his Bell P-39 Airacobra.

And now he was in Lincoln, which greeted him in 1962 first with the tornado and then with a neighborhood none too thrilled to see a black family pull up.

Throughout his 92 years, Paul Adams rode out the storms of life with characteristic strength and good humor.

He played a role in history as a Tuskegee Airman and a role in the future, shaping generations of Lincoln Public Schools students as a high school teacher.

After Adams died this summer, services in Lincoln and in his native Greenville, S.C., paid tribute to his inspirational story.


That story began in the Appalachian lowland country of Greenville, where Adams was born in 1920, the youngest of 12 children.

At age 6, Adams got his first job, serving as a companion to a local shopkeeper's son, who was his age.

The pair became close friends, though the racial divide kept their lives on separate paths. The shopkeeper's son got to take naps; Paul got to wash dishes. The two drank from separate fountains, attended separate high schools and launched separate paths.

The shopkeeper's son entered flight school; Paul finished college and taught.

He yearned to fly, but there were few black pilots in the country and none in the segregated military. Blacks couldn't even go near the Army air base in Greenville.

Then things began to change.


It took two decades of public pressure, two acts of Congress and a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt to launch the Tuskegee Airmen program.

In 1939, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act, which provided federal funds for training black pilots. The Tuskegee Institute, an established black college in southeast Alabama, was approved as a training site. Tuskegee had the highest record of applicants who passed the entrance test.

In 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which, among other things, required military service branches to enlist blacks. The Army Air Corps moved forward with a program to develop the nation's first corps of black fighter pilots, called the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron).

In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit to Tuskegee, hopped into a two-seater and insisted that a black pilot take her up.

“Well, you can fly all right,” the first lady said after a half-hour flight.

Roosevelt then donated money toward the construction of a training airfield near Tuskegee. Not long afterward the War Department chose Tuskegee as the primary flight training school for black aviators.

Back in South Carolina, Paul Adams got wind of Tuskegee and applied.

Pilots could earn $75 a month — twice what Adams made teaching at a junior college and three times what enlisted men were getting.

“I'd have signed up to fly anything,” Adams told me when I met him in 2002. “I could have flown a truck.”

He applied, passed the physical exam and waited. Nothing.

Seeking airmen with Nebraska ties

A retired Air Force captain in Bellevue is looking for more Tuskegee Airmen with Nebraska ties.

Bob Rose, director of the local chapter of the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen Inc., knows of nine former Nebraskans who were airmen, and has the last known Nebraska address for eight. They are Calvin Hobbs, Albert Johnson Jr., Erven McSwain, William Patterson, Ellsworth Pryor, Melvin Robinson and Jethro Spurlock, all of Omaha; Marion Moore of Nebraska City; and the late Edward W. Watkins, whose prior address is unknown.

Anyone who knows the whereabouts of these men or their families is asked to contact Rose at 402-292-8912 or at

Adams took the exam again, passed it again and waited some more. Again, nothing.

Then his former employer, the father of his childhood friend, pulled a string. He made a phone call.

Days later, Adams received a telegram: “Report to flight-training school.”

The telegram was signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Once at Tuskegee in 1942, Adams endured the rigors of training. Outside Tuskegee, he endured the hostility of whites. During a one-day stop back home in Greenville, Adams was arrested while wearing his uniform, because authorities didn't believe he was in the military. Military police turned him loose after verifying his papers.

Adams was commissioned a second lieutenant and sent to Italy, where he patrolled the Naples harbor as part of the 332nd Fighter Group, called the Red Tails because of the distinctive paint on their planes.

The Tuskegee Airmen's job was to protect U.S. bombers in missions over Europe and North Africa.

The pilots did their job so well, they quickly earned the reputation of a good-luck charm. Most of the Tuskegee Airmen's 1,500 missions were successful.

This does not mean all black airmen survived. Omaha pilot Alfonza W. Davis was flying over the Adriatic Sea when his plane went missing; he was later presumed dead.

Adams survived the war only to return to the humiliations of home. The military he so admirably served remained segregated for several more years, until President Harry Truman signed a desegregation order.

Adams took a year off from the military. Then he re-upped, launching an Air Force career that took him, eventually, to Lincoln.


The way his children remember it, the drive to Nebraska was long and complicated by that tornado.

The family was used to road trips because of their father's various military posts and frequent trips back to Greenville. Adams would take the wheel with his wife, Alda, at his side, and their three children and pet poodle in the back.

Like so many veterans, Adams told no war stories. Like so many black fathers, he said little about having to pick up their restaurant food to-go from the back of the building, or having to skip segregated motels to sleep in the car at rest stops. Adams sometimes would just drive through the night, his eldest daughter, Gloria, staying awake to keep him company.

Son Michael remembers the tornado and says the weather “was horrendous” as they drove into Lincoln.

Paul Adams pushed on until he reached the old Lincoln Air Force base. The sky was dark gray, but Adams never seemed rattled.

“Dad was not a panic person,” his son said. “He was kind of a superman, in my eyes.”


For years, this superman didn't talk about becoming South Carolina's first fighter pilot. He didn't talk much about the irony of being a war hero and a second-class citizen. He didn't tell his children about how whites in the Lincoln neighborhood where they first planned to live balked at the idea of a black family settling in.

Adams did tell his children not to be held back by discrimination or fear of being the only black person in your class, school or workplace. He did tell them to be the best they could, be it ditch digger or dentist — which is what son Michael would eventually become.

He did show them a charisma that drew people to him “like bees to honey,” Michael said. And he showed a tender heart to his wife of 67 years.


Paul Adams retired from the Air Force in 1963. Then he began a career as an industrial arts teacher at Lincoln High.

At the time, Adams was one of three black teachers in the district. He developed a black studies class and volunteered to help at football and basketball games until his retirement in 1982.

It wasn't until his children were grown that they realized their father's role in shaping history.

Gloria Middlebrooks began attending Tuskegee Airmen conventions with her folks in the early 1990s. Michael Adams was playing golf in Nashville when a white man his father's age approached, and they got talking about World War II and Tuskegee and Michael's father.

The stranger then shook Michael's hand.

“You give that to your father,” he said. “Tell him that was from a man that was able to come back from World War II.”


After retiring from teaching, he volunteered at his church, Quinn A.M.E., and served the local Kiwanis, Lincoln NAACP, Boy Scouts and American Legion.

He became a surrogate grandpa at Elliott Elementary and devoted his time to Tuskegee Airmen Inc., led locally by retired Air Force Capt. Bob Rose of Bellevue.

Rose feared that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, especially their local connections, would be lost as the airmen aged.

He galvanized the handful of Tuskegee Airmen in Nebraska: Adams of Lincoln, Harrison Tull of Bellevue, Robert Holts and Charles Lane of Omaha. Tull died in 2009.

The men traveled the state telling their stories. They were inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004. They served as hosts that year when the Tuskegee Airmen's national organization held its annual convention in Omaha.

They received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. And in 2009, they traveled to Washington, D.C., for a special seat at a sight they never thought they would see: the inauguration of a black president.

Last year they gathered at a screening of the film about them, “Red Tails,” whose executive producer was George Lucas.

I was lucky enough to interview Adams a few times.

He told me about the importance of perseverance: “You must have an education and be determined to be something. Don't give up.”

He told me about courage: “We weren't scared of nobody. They told us we were the best there was. We felt we were better than any of them.”

Adams died June 30 after his heart gave out.

But his memory will live on through an elementary school in Lincoln that bears his name. Adams Elementary was dedicated in 2008. It holds a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal. Books on the Tuskegee Airmen fill its shelves. And the school mascot?

The Aviators.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the Tuskegee Airman's losses to enemy fire. While most of the 1,500 missions were successful, some did result in lost life.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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