In early 1943, a 19-year-old James Shipley, of Tipton, was training for military service with fellow African Americans at a military base in Tuskegee, Alabama. In his biography, “Together as One,” he recalls looking to the skies during his basic training to watch aircraft such as the PT-17 Stearman being used to train Black aviation cadets who would soon be bestowed the iconic title of “Tuskegee Airmen.”
Nearly eight decades later, Shipley had the experience of a lifetime when he received a flight on a similar aircraft. The event was a partnership between the non-profit Dream Flights and organizations including Sports Clips and Veterans United Home Loans, seeking to recognize Word War II veterans under a program called “Operation September Freedom.”
According to the Dream Flights website, the organization is “dedicated to honoring military veterans and seniors with the adventure of a lifetime: a flight in a Boeing Stearman biplane.”
They added, “As we make these heroes’ wishes come true, our Dream Flights inspire them to share their stories. We collect, preserve and share those stories of how they survived through times of great strife to remind us of our shared humanity, our connection to each other and the value of listening.”
Nearly a dozen area World War II veterans took to the skies Saturday on a free flight experience at Jefferson City Memorial Airport. The crews demonstrated great care in assisting the veterans in and out of the aircraft since many have developed mobility issues in their later years.
The flights were part of “Flying into the ’40s” event that was open to the public. The World War II-themed event included live musical performances by Kapital Kicks, demonstrations with modern and historical parachutes in addition to displays of several types of aircraft.
Shortly after his arrival at the airport, Shipley became excited when given the opportunity for a closer look at a P-40 Warhawk and a P-51 Mustang — both aircraft that he helped “turn wrenches on” and maintained while deployed to Italy during the war.
“I can remember when our outfit got the P-40s; they were worn out but we kept them up and running as best we could so our pilots could perform their missions,” he said. “When we got the P-51s, it was like getting a new high-performance sports car after we had been driving old clunkers.”
He proudly added, “I was crew chief for three different pilots while I was in the service, and every one of them made it back home safely.”
With scores of onlookers leaning against a temporary fence to watch the historic event, Shipley was tenderly loaded into the open cockpit of the biplane and adorned with an aviation flight helmet. Slowly taxiing to the runway while Shipley wore a wide grin, the aircraft lifted off for a 10-minute flight.
After he returned to the airport, he still wore his grin while the aircraft pulled up near the flight hangar. When he was unloaded from the front seat of the biplane, the pilot thanked him for his service. Then, Shipley was asked if he would be willing to sign the tail of the aircraft, obliging the request before being surrounded by media wishing to interview him regarding his flight.
The 98-year-old veteran remained at the event for several hours, signing copies of his biography and visiting with members of the public clamoring for the opportunity to meet one of the few surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Reflecting on his flight, Shipley demonstrated the unselfish and humble nature that has come to be recognized as defining characteristics of the men and women known as the “Greatest Generation.”
“The flight was great and was not something I ever expected to happen to me,” he said. “Back in the war, we had some pretty tough experiences, but we were all just doing the jobs we were supposed to be doing.”
He added, “I guess I don’t understand all the attention — I am just proud that I was able to serve my country and that I made it safely back home to Tipton after the war.”
For more information regarding Dream Flights or to make a donation, go online to dreamflights.org.
Jeremy P. mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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