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Tuskegee Airman Ellis rememberedTuskegee Airman Ellis remembered

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the total number of missions flown by the unit of Tuskegee Airmen. The article was updated with additional information Jan. 22.

Thomas Ellis, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, died in San Antonio Jan. 2 at the age of 97.

San Antonio native Thomas Ellis reflects on his time serving with the Tuskegee Airmen from 1942 to 1945. Ellis was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group that piloted red-tailed P-51 Mustangs in Europe and protected U.S. bombers. Photo by Kin Man Hui, San Antonio Express-News.

The San Antonio Express-News reported that the unit recorded 15,533 sorties, 112 aerial kills, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and three Presidential Unit Citations. Ellis earned seven battle stars and rose to the rank of sergeant major, according to news reports.

Ellis served as an administrative clerk in the all-black Army Air Forces unit and was part of a group of African Americans deployed to Europe in red-tailed P-51 Mustangs to protect American bombers during World War II. The newspaper reported that he “chafed at the racism” they endured during the war and “knew the importance of proving that the 332nd Fighter Group was up to the job.”

This is a family photo of Tuskegee Airman Thomas Ellis (bottom center). He was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group that piloted red-tailed P-51 Mustangs in Europe and protected U.S. bombers. Photo by Kin Man Hui, San Antonio Express-News.

The bomber escort group excelled. According to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum, Tuskegee pilots established "the incredible and unprecedented record of flying 200 of its 205 bomber escort missions without the loss of a single bomber due to enemy aircraft," though there were losses due to anti-aircraft gunfire and other causes.

"They had the cream of the crop in our outfit because we had to do everything better than the other outfits on account of our race," Ellis told the Air Force Times during a 2010 event honoring Tuskegee Airmen. "They said we couldn't fly, we couldn't do this, we couldn't do that. We proved them wrong."

His daughter Janice Stallings said Ellis rose quickly through the ranks while managing personnel records. She told the newspaper he served under Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who eventually became an Air Force general.

He was approachable and “really easy to meet. He made people feel good,” Stallings recalled. If he saw a person older than himself, Ellis complimented them by saying, “‘How are you doing, young man?’ Or if it was a lady, ‘How are you doing, young lady?’”

She said the retired U.S. Postal Service employee was very friendly to others. “Too friendly, sometimes. He would slow you down if you were trying to take him someplace.”

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Pilots

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