By Andrea Stone (Fort Carson)May 1, 2014
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- His memory of specifics may be a bit hazy, but the events of Lt. Col. Marion Rodgers 94-year life speak for themselves.
Rodgers, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, spoke to Soldiers from the Warrior Transition Battalion at McMahon Auditorium, April 23.
In 1943, he was sent to pre-flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
"It was a segregated program. All the instructors in basic and advanced training were white, but most were fair and conscientious. A few should have been somewhere else," he said according to information provided by the WTB.
After training, he flew more than 350 hours in 69 combat missions over Europe in the P-51 Mustang, escorting B-17s and B-24s on strafing and reconnaissance missions.
"We never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft," Rodgers said.
After the war, he became commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron at Lockbourne Air Base, Ohio, a year before the Air Force integrated minorities into the service. He served for 22 years on active duty and 17 years in civil service, working for a year at NASA on the Apollo 13 project.
"Lt. Col. Rodgers had about four or five lifetimes compared to us. It's very impressive," said Lt. Col. Aaron Termain, WTB commander. "To have lived through the darkest part of segregation, going through combat, and then (returning) and commanding an Air Force base … it just amazes me that he was there to see that transition from segregation to no segregation and what that was like."
When Rodgers first became interested in aviation, there were no opportunities for minorities. As a child in Roselle, N.J., he lived six miles from the Newark airport, near an auto repair shop. Workers at the shop had restored a damaged biplane.
"I used to (drive) them crazy, getting in the way, but they allowed me to continue getting in the way," he said. "I tried to stay close to that as much as I could, so I was close to what was happening at the Newark airport … I got a chance (to see) those airplanes coming over every day."
Spc. Amber Messimore, Company A, WTB, appreciated Rodgers' message.
"He was very knowledgeable. You could feel his passion in what he did," she said. "You could feel what he was saying. It was almost as if you were there … it must have been a challenging time."
After commanding the squadron at Lockbourne, Rodgers was sent to the southern U.S.
"Things were a little bit different there, a little bit more discrimination," he said.
Recalling his first experience flying brought laughter.
"I remember the first flight that I had that I had no instructor with me, and I was extremely careful about everything I did to try to make it absolutely perfect, and I guess I did," he said. "With all the things I had to do in the cockpit of that little airplane because there were so many instruments and controls on it, I had to pay attention to a lot of things."
When asked what he would share with today's young Army leaders, he was encouraging.
"If you are allowed to start (something), work your tail off until you make sure you're doing your best to show your best," he said.
Rodgers had the opportunity to return to Germany and see some of the places he'd flown over during the war.
"They were pleasure trips, and I enjoyed them. I enjoyed them even more with no war," he said.