Asa Newman, one of last Tuskegee Airmen, honored on 102nd birthday in Aurora
AURORA — The community honored one of its treasures last week with a parade and ceremony for Asa Newman, one of the last living members of the Tuskegee Airmen, famed for their bravery in Europe during World War II.
Local veterans, city officials and other dignitaries were on hand Sept. 24 to honor Newman, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on April 15, 1941.
When Newman moved to Aurora in 2015, he told the Aurora Advocate he joined the Army because he knew he would eventually be drafted and wanted to pick his branch of service. However, he didn’t know what branch of the Army he’d wind up in. By September 1941, he had been transferred to the Tuskegee Airmen and said he was thrilled.
One of the most famous Tuskegee Airmen units was the 332nd Fighter Group, which earned an impressive combat record. The Allies called these airmen “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels” because of the distinctive crimson unit identification marking that was predominantly applied on the tail section of the unit’s aircraft.
In early 1943, Newman’s Tuskegee Airmen group members were flown to Casablanca, Morocco, then to Sicily, then to Italy. They flew more than 1,000 bomb missions, mostly in the daytime. He and his group of about 300 men spent the most time in Italy.
Newman was a chief armer, helping to arm the planes with bombs. He and three other men rolled 500-pound bombs that were on cradles with wheels, then lifted the bombs onto the planes.
“Back then, lifting those heavy bombs was easy; we were all young,” he said with a laugh.
Newman described the planes as “fighter groups, not bomber squadrons.”
“We had single-engine, single-pilot planes,” he said. “Early in the war, our planes carried one bomb. Later on, they carried two bombs.”
Newman also worked with the planes’ gun sights.
Several times, the Germans sent planes toward the U.S. air fields where the Tuskegee Airman were stationed. Newman was uninjured.
“We were a very proud group,” said Newman, 97. “Some people said [African-Americans] couldn’t fly airplanes, but we did everything we were asked to do. Flying planes is one thing, but fighting is another, and we did it.
"Everybody in our group had the same idea -- to do our best and to help other members of our group do their best,” he said.
He said the first German plane he saw attacked his base right after D-Day in June, 1944.
“It was coming right at us. I dove underneath a large cannon," he recalled. “It was all greasy underneath, but it was cover. You could see all the smoke coming out of the planes after they fired their bullets at us.”
In between missions, Newman said they would “eat, sleep, write letters and try to relax.”
Newman rose to the rank of master sergeant.
He was in Italy when the war in Europe ended in 1945. “As soon as it was announced, everybody started yelling,” he said.
By early September 1945, Newman had returned home, flying from Italy to North Africa to New York City.
Newman had grown up in Cleveland, graduating from East High School.
He had three brother and three sisters. Two of his brothers, Maurice and Leonard, also served in the military during the war.
After the war, Newman needed one more year of college to get the job he wanted, so he attended Roosevelt University in Illinois, where he saw Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That was a highlight for him.
“She stood up for blacks,” he said. “That made us proud.”
In fact, the budding Tuskegee Airmen program had received a publicity boost in early 1941 when Mrs. Roosevelt flew in one of their planes.
After the war, Newman married his fiancee, Virginia, in 1948. They had one child, Asa Jr.
For 10 years, Newman worked for the IRS, then got a job at the University of Chicago from 1958-71 where he operated a cyclotron, also known as an atom smasher. In 1971, his wife was killed in a plane crash.
Editor's note: Much of the information in this article is from a 2015 story published in the Aurora Advocate.
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