Quentin Smith didn’t grow up flying model airplanes as a kid or dreaming of soaring in the sky as a pilot like his friends did.
But that’s what the 91-year-old did as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the black fighter pilots who fought in World War II and helped desegregate the U.S. armed forces. He’s among roughly 200 surviving airmen today. Smith, a native of East Chicago, Indiana spoke to students of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park last Thursday. Smith was invited by seventh grade teacher Tom Reising, whose dad is a longtime friend of Smith’s.
Joining the Tuskegee airman on stage were Brooks students. Sitting in a row of chairs and wearing headset microphones, the students each asked Smith questions about his life as a fighter pilot, fighting in the war, and facing segregation. One student asked what inspired him to become a pilot.
“I wasn’t inspired to be a pilot. I didn’t want to be a pilot,” he said.
Smith had a brother who was in the Army, but Smith didn’t see himself crawling in the mud in trenches, as his brother warned him would be his fate if he joined. Smith had never flown a plane before and had no interest in doing so until he was encouraged by a buddy to become a pilot. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942. Smith trained at the Coffy School of Aeronautics in Chicago, where other Tuskegee Airmen would learn to fly.
He recalled that many of his friends dreamed of flying, but that prospect was farthest from his mind. Because of segregation and racism, a few jobs in manual labor were the only ones available. While in high school he had been denied the right to play on any of his Washington High School sports teams, so he joined the school band instead, playing the clarinet. The school band even played at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. He ended up meeting another young musician there named Nat King Cole.
As a pilot, Smith, standing six-foot three and weighing 200 pounds, was too big for the P-fighter planes, so he was made a bomber pilot. Smith would soon be flying bomber planes with the all-black flying regimen in the war.
“I was running from something else,” he said of becoming a pilot. “I was running from being an infantryman. And I got into pilot school and I heard that song, You live in fame and go down in flames; and I was intrigued by that rather than crawling in mud on my belly. I never looked in the sky and said, ‘Gee, I want to be up there.’ It just happened that when I got started, it got interesting, and from there, there was progress.” Smith received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007 for his service
After the assembly, Smith gave autographs to more than a dozen enthusiastic kids. Reising said he remembers his father sharing many stories told to him by Smith about his service. He had always thought his dad, who also grew up in Indiana, was making up most of those stories, but came to realize they were all true.
“He’s living history and I thought the kids would enjoy listening to him,” Reising said.