GARY | Quentin Smith, one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen, died Tuesday at the age of 94.
Smith was a member of the legendary black World War II air corps that rarely lost a plane while escorting and protecting bombers as they flew missions over war-torn Europe.
Smith returned to the region and served as the first principal of West Side High School in Gary and on the Gary City Council. Smith also created the Gary Emerson High School for Visual and Performing Arts.
The city and the region are better off because of Smith, said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
"He was destined to lead, and it does speak volumes to how the Tuskegee Airmen were trained to lead. We were very fortunate to have him in this community," she said.
Freeman-Wilson recalled talking to Smith last year when she presented him a replacement Congressional Gold Medal.
"He was larger than life. The time I spent with him that day was a highlight, just listening to him. That is something I will always treasure," she said.
Smith was born in Texas, but at an early age he moved with his family to Northwest Indiana. He graduated from Indiana State University in 1940 with a degree in social studies education. After teaching for two years at Roosevelt High School in Gary, and following the outbreak of World War II, Smith joined the war effort.
While most of his colleagues yearned to fly, Smith had to be talked into signing up. In the 1940s, all military planes were assigned to white pilots, so Smith flew "primary" planes, or service aircraft, and served as a flight instructor for "primaries" at Tuskegee Institute. Later, because he was too big for a fighter plane, he became a bombardier*. It was difficult at first to assemble a full crew, though, as black pilots were not allowed to command white crews.
After spending time at Fort Knox, 1st Lt. Smith was transferred to Freeman Field at Seymour, Ind., where he made military history. Smith and 100 other black officers were arrested for defying orders not to enter the base’s officers club. The Army sent the officers to Fort Leavenworth, but that Kansas base was not prepared to handle so many African-American detainees, so they were sent back to Freeman Field.
Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney who would go on to become the first black Supreme Court justice, won the release of Smith and his fellow officers.
Two years later, President Harry Truman integrated the military but it would take more than 50 years for the Freeman Field officers’ service records to be cleared.
After Smith's military flight career, he returned to teaching and served as a guidance counselor and school principal. He earned a master’s degree in English and became director of secondary education for the Gary Community School Corp. Smith was a member of the Tuskegee Airman 477th Composite Group. He received the Congressional Gold Medal. He was a member of the Chicago chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Organization of Black Pilots and sat on several aviation and education boards.
*Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version.
Quentin Smith served as a bombardier with the Tuskegee Airmen, not as a bomber pilot. The Times regrets the error.