ST. PETERSBURG — A 100-year-old World War II veteran of a highly decorated, segregated unit was honored Wednesday evening with a portrait unveiling at St. Petersburg’s Museum of History.
Master Sgt. Willie Rogers was drafted in February 1942 and joined the Army’s Tuskegee Airmen, a popular name for a segregated group of pilots and other crew who carried out low flying missions over Europe and North Africa during the war.
As a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron, Rogers wasn’t a pilot, but served during tours in Naples, Italy, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Subject to the country’s Jim Crow laws following the war, black veterans faced discrimination for decades and their accomplishments went widely unrecognized. In 2007, the 300 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal.
The military has come a long way since he served, Rogers said.
Through the years he has kept in touch with other Tuskegee Airmen, but many of them have died. Rogers said he didn’t expect to survive the war after getting shot in the leg and stomach in January 1943.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.
But Rogers, who moved to St. Petersburg after the war, still walks to services at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church every Sunday morning. He uses a cane to get around, but said he feels good for his age.
Today he is the father of two daughters, a grandfather of four and a great grandfather of three. Rogers said he is proud to know his service has not been forgotten, and is happy that the painting, done by fellow veteran Greg Crumbly, will help his family remember him and his service.
One of his daughters, Veronica Williams, said her dad’s recognition allows him to stand in for fellow soldiers who died during and since the war.
“There are no words,” she said. “We’re honored.”
Willie Rogers also was joined by his 91-year-old sister at the event.
The portrait features an American flag, a Congressional Medal of Honor and a red-tailed plane, which distinguished the Tuskegee Airmen from other squadrons.
The unveiling was held by the Veterans Art Center Tampa Bay, an organization that focuses on art therapy for veterans and displays those works.
Clinton Glover, Willie’s Rogers’ nephew, said his uncle might be getting old, but he is as sharp as ever. “He could give you all kinds of war stories,” Glover said.