Willie N. Rogers was an American hero, and at age 101, he was a living example of the nation’s history. He was a member of the “Greatest Generation,” which defeated the Axis powers in World War II, doing his part as a master sergeant in the all-black Tuskegee Airmen during the era of racial segregation in the U.S. military.
The longtime St. Petersburg resident died Friday from complications of a stroke.
He was the oldest surviving member of that original legendary 100th Fighter Squadron.
Mr. Rogers’ nephew, Clinton Glover, said his uncle deserves to be celebrated for his contributions to this country.
But Mr. Rogers would be uncomfortable with any hoopla, Glover said. “He didn’t like a lot of fuss,” Glover said. “He was humble. That’s who he was.”
In 2007, President George W. Bush saluted 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen at the White House and apologized for any indignities they endured. They were then awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
But Mr. Rogers was not there, nor were his daughters Felicia Rogers of St. Petersburg or Veronica Williams of Douglasville, Ga., even aware that their father was part of the first African-American military aviation squadron in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces.
They knew he had served in World War II, but he did not reveal that portion of the story until 2012.
Part of the reason for that silence, he’d tell his family, was because his work was on the ground in logistics and administration, not in the sky where the heroics took place.
“He would always say there were many who deserved attention more, but were not here to receive it,” Williams said.
But Mr. Rogers was involved in military action and was shot in the stomach and leg by German soldiers during a mission in Italy in January 1943.
He spent three months in a hospital in London and then returned to the war.
After Germany’s surrender, Rogers witnessed the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. He arrived after it was liberated by American troops April 29, 1945, but his daughter wonders whether evidence of the horrific crimes there haunted him.
“He could give dates, names, locations of events from the war,” Williams said. “But he didn’t like to give specifics about what occurred to him. He saw things that were bad. And he experienced treatment because he was African-American that wasn’t fair.”
Still, the family worked hard to get him the credit he deserved after his Tuskegee service was disclosed in 2012.
Mr. Rogers received his Congressional Gold Medal in November 2013.
Also in recent years, he was presented with the keys to the cities of Lakeland and St. Petersburg. His portrait hangs in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman noted Mr. Rogers’ death in a tweet Sunday: “Rest in peace, our friend — St. Pete’s 2015 Honored Veteran and Tuskegee Airman, 101-year-old Willie Rogers.”
Born in Apalachicola in 1915, he moved to St. Petersburg after the war and established Rogers Radio Sales and Services that sold and repaired radios and other small appliances, said his daughter Veronica.
“He could fix anything,” she said.
But she said his greatest attribute was his ability to love everyone unconditionally. Despite being mistreated as an African- American even while serving his nation, Mr. Rogers held no ill will to anyone.
“He recognized that we as people and he as a black man have come a long way but that there is still more to go,” Williams said. “But in God’s eyes there is no color, he’d say. We are all one and he lived by the greatest commandment — to love one another.”
Until recently he continued to walk the short distance every Sunday from his apartment in Burlington Towers to services at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
On Saturday, before a noon service honoring Mr. Rogers, his family will make that trek in his honor.
While the family is appreciative that the community honors Mr. Rogers’ military past, Williams hopes her father will be remembered most for his life’s motto.
“Treat everyone with dignity, pride and integrity,” she said. “He said that a lot. And he meant it.”