Grace: Tuskegee pilot Charles Lane was more than just a war hero -
Published Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:56 pm
Grace: Tuskegee pilot Charles Lane was more than just a war hero

I'd like to think that Charles Lane drew more than a little satisfaction from the skies above enemy territory during World War II.

I'd like to think that while protecting U.S. bombers, while strafing Axis targets and dodging enemy fire, the dashing fighter pilot manning a P-51 Mustang flashed that impish smile out the window of his cockpit to some surprised blue-eyed German.

Here was Lane, a paradox for his time as a black fighter pilot. Here was Nazi Germany, the ultimate symbol of racism.

Take that, Hitler!

Lt. Col. Lane flew 26 missions. He lost friends and comrades. His own plane took 14 bullets.

He survived to serve during two more wars, to lead an Omaha anti-poverty agency and to live a long and inspiring life — a life honored in his final years by overdue recognition of his heroic and history-making wartime role.

Lane died Friday at Lakeside Hospital. He was 88. He will be remembered at a wake service Friday at 6 p.m. and a funeral Saturday, both at the Fort Street Church of Christ.

But I'd like to think his memory will live on through the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of black pilots, bombardiers and others trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Their distinctive service protecting bombers in World War II is seen as one of the main reasons the U.S. military became racially integrated after the war.

It's only been in recent years that the service of the Tuskegee Airmen has become better known.

In 2004, Omaha hosted a national convention of the Tuskegee Airmen.

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented the airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Last year, Lane and other airmen were treated to a special screening of the film “Red Tails.” And in August, Lane saw the Omaha Public Schools name their newest building in northwest Omaha after Tuskegee Airman Alfonza W. Davis, a Tech High valedictorian.

Locally, Lane was recognized for his community service with a Living the Dream award from the City of Omaha. He is a member of the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame. He was also one of the most visible members of the local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., promoting aviation, particularly among young people.

For those who knew him, Lane was more than a war hero.

He was a loving father, a loyal friend, a stalwart advocate and a charismatic storyteller, whose retelling of history made it come alive.

He would tell about growing up in 1930s St. Louis, a boy who dreamed of the sky at a time when discrimination clipped the wings of other dreamers.

He was obsessed with airplanes, folding them out of paper, building them out of wood, pedaling his bike some 18 miles each way to watch them at Lambert Field. Lane once sweet-talked a pilot there into taking him for a spin after he cleaned the plane's wheels.

After the war started, the Army Air Corps eventually began training blacks to fly, and Lane signed up.

Soon he was soaring above Europe — and above anyone's expectations of what blacks could do.

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Bob Rose, a retired Air Force captain who runs Tuskegee Airmen Inc. of Nebraska, said it wasn't just the blue-eyed Germans who were surprised to see a Charles Lane in the cockpit.

“Most of them were not aware,” Rose said of U.S. bombers. “They were very shaky about having blacks protect their flank. The general consensus was blacks couldn't fly, and even if they could master the airplane, they wouldn't have the guts.”

That attitude changed because the Tuskegee pilots were so good at their job.

If it was sweetly ironic being a black pilot fighting the Nazis, it had been bitterly ironic being a black fighter pilot in a still-segregated military.

Lane once spent the night in a Nashville, Tenn., jail, accused of impersonating an officer. He once escorted Nazi prisoners to a dining hall and saw they had better accommodations than he did.

After the war, Lane would later say he sometimes felt more at home in Europe.

“The way we looked at it, we were first-class citizens in the air, second-class citizens at the base and third-class citizens in the community,” Lane once said.

His daughter, Karen Davis, said her father was proud of his military service. He openly talked about discrimination but was an optimistic person.

“He was not bitter,” she said. “I was moaning about something. He said, 'Baby, that was in the past.' He was a guy that looked forward.”

He had to keep moving forward in the 1960s when his wife and high school sweetheart, Betty, died of cancer, leaving Lane with three children.

“He was mom and dad,” Davis said.

Davis said her father's second career in public service — helping people in poverty at Greater Omaha Community Action — was heroic, too. Lane retired from that organization, now called ENCAP, in 1992.

Lane outlived both his sons, Charles and Mark. His longtime companion, Ruth Louise Borders, died in 2010. He is survived by nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Lane was a member of the Greatest Generation, a group that is shrinking with the passage of time. His death now leaves Cpl. Robert Holts, a U.S. Postal Service retiree, as the sole known survivor among the Nebraskans who were trained at Tuskegee.

But I'd like to think that no one will forget these men, or their service.

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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