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.

OWH Columnists
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.

Council Bluffs school board approves new district headquarters
Officials announce effort to lure more veterans to Nebraska
SB 132nd Street lane closed
Shane Osborn grabs several endorsements
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
Firefighters take on 'fully engulfed barn fire'
Man's body found near North 36th, Seward Streets
Omaha area may get 1 inch of rain tonight
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
Owners of exotic dance bar deny prostitution allegations
More Nebraskans are electing to vote early
A day after Ricketts endorsement, Ted Cruz backs Sasse for Senate
TD Ameritrade says profit up 35 percent in second quarter
Some city streets remain closed
Nebraska's U.S. Senate candidates stick to familiar topics at Omaha forum
19-year-old killed in one-vehicle crash at 72nd & Shirley
8% of alcohol sellers checked in Omaha area last week sold booze to minors
OPS bus, SUV collide; no students onboard at the time
Lori Jenkins, charged as accessory in 4 murders, waives speedy trial
Iowa State servers hacked, nearly 30,000 SSNs at risk
2nd District House race: After 8 terms, Lee Terry knows how D.C. works — and doesn't
< >
Breaking Brad: Inside the mind of a 99-year-old real estate agent
I saw an article about a 99-year-old real estate agent who's still working. “This house is extra special. It has indoor toilets!”
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Breaking Brad: Kraft wiener recall is business opportunity for TD Ameritrade Park
Instead of returning the wieners, TD Ameritrade Park is calling them "cheese dogs" and charging double.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Tokyo Sushi
$5 for $10 or $10 for $20 toward All-You-Can-Eat Sushi Purchase
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »