Crusader Staff Report
John Lyle, a Tuskegee Airman during World War II died January 5 at his South Side Chicago home. He was 98.
Lyle’s wife, Eunice, said in news reports that her husband had been battling prostate cancer.
Lyle is the latest Tuskegee Airman to die in recent months, raising questions if he was the last surviving member of the esteemed squadron.
On December 9, Wilfred DeFour, another Tuskegee Airman, was found dead in his home in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, the Amsterdam News reported. He was 100. On November 29, two weeks after being recognized as a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman (DOTA), Howard Tymony died on November 29, 2018, in Elk Grove, California. He was 93.
They were members of the nation’s first Black fighter squadron and won acclaim and admiration for their aerial skills and bravery, at a time when the U.S. military imposed segregation on its African-American recruits while respecting the rights of German prisoners.
According to news reports, Lyle, who named his plane “Natalie” after his first wife, was credited with shooting down a German Messerschmitt.
“We flew 500 feet above the bombers to keep enemy fighters from hitting our guys,” he recalled in a 2012 interview with Jet magazine. “I loved flying, being up in the clouds, the scenery. I flew 26 combat missions, from southern Italy to Austria and southern Germany, over the Austrian Alps.”
Lyle told Jet he was fired upon several times.
“I watched bombers being torn apart, but they were performing the mission they signed up to do,” Lyle said. “And when I had to shoot the guy who was shooting at the planes I was protecting, I did not feel bad because that was my assignment.”
“He had no fear,” Eunice Lyle said in a story in the Chicago Sun-Times. “None at all.”
President George W. Bush and Congress in 2007, bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on Lyle and other members of the squadron.
After the war, Lyle served as a police officer with the Chicago Park District. He founded a tree-trimming company and later took up sailing at the Jackson Park Yacht Club, which is reportedly the largest community of Black sailors in the country. Of the club’s 400 members, three hundred are Black.
In addition to his wife, Lyle is survived by three step-children.
According to the Amsterdam News, very little is known of DeFour’s life before his military service. But according to Return of the Red Tails, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memory of the Tuskegee Airmen, DeFour joined the Air Corps in 1942 and was assigned to the 366th Air Service Squadron, serving in Italy after he completed basic training in Tuskegee, Ala. Moviegoers who saw “Red Tails,” starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrance Howard, should note that De Four, perhaps represented in a composite character portrayed by James Weston, was among the technicians who painted the red tails on the planes.
In 2016, DeFour, along with Dabney Montgomery, who died later that year, visited a fifth grade class in Hempstead, N.Y., to mark Black History Month. Montgomery told the children that when he returned to civilian life in his native Alabama after the service, he was not allowed to vote. DeFour attended a ceremony last month for the renaming of a Harlem post office in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, CNN affiliate WABC reported.
According to the Sacramento Observer, during World War II, Tymony helped load guns and arm planes flown by the 332nd Fighter Group. He rose through the ranks to become an artillery supervisor. Over his career, Tymony conducted missions in Italy, Guam, Vietnam, Libya and the Philippines.
He was a friend and roommate of Tuskegee Airman and Olympic gold medalist Mal Whitfield. A gifted pianist, Tymony was often requested by famed General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and his wife to play during special events. He was also present on the Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana in 1945 when Black officers attempted to integrate an all-white officer’s club.
The January 3 story on DeFour in the Amsterdam News cited a report that said there were some 600 Tuskegee Airmen still alive. With the passing of DeFour, that number is now reduced by one. Questions remain whether Lyle was that last surviving Tuskegee Airman.
In 2016, The Undefeated, an ESPN online publication, reported that the oldest surviving member of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Willie Rogers of St. Petersburg, Florida, died at 101 years old.