LOCKPORT – Oscar Lawton Wilkerson earned the chance to train as a military pilot during World War II, a rarity for black men in those days.
Wilkerson, 88, also known as “Wilk,” didn’t join his Tuskegee Airmen comrades in combat when he finally earned his wings. Those pilots would become legends for their wartime accomplishments, disproving prejudices about black men in the military.
But Wilkerson experienced the same limitations imposed on those pilots during the war and after it. He shared those experiences Thursday with the Lockport Rotary Club.
He was there with Gary Niehaus, chairman of the Lockport Veterans Commission, who also told the Rotarians of a veterans golf outing this September.
“I’m not here planning to be the guy who made the legend; I’m trying to help perpetuate it,” Wilkerson said.
Dreamed of flying
The Markham resident dreamed of flying at the age of 12 when he lived in Chicago Heights. The dream became a reality when Wilkerson graduated from high school in 1944 and joined the U.S. Army Air Force. He trained in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Wilkerson earned his wings soon after, but never got to fight because World War II ended. He wasn’t disappointed. He just wanted to fly.
“I questioned those who said they wanted to be in the war,” he said. “There are those of us who wanted to fight for our country, but not many people who wanted to get into the war.”
Wilkerson showed a documentary film produced and directed by Jeff Fisher and Cory Hooper to the Lockport Rotarians that detailed the lives and struggles of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war.
The film showed how the Tuskegee Airmen helped to prove that black people could perform any duty in the military. They became the catalyst for integration of the armed services.
“Before there was a civil rights movement, the Tuskegee Airmen were the civil rights movement,” said Ken Rapier, Chicago “Dodo” Chapter member, in the film.
However, many after the war – including Wilkerson – wanted to work as commercial airline pilots, but couldn’t because of rampant prejudices against black people at the time. Wilkerson would go on to work as a bus driver, insurance salesman and with NBC radio in Chicago.
Veterans golf outing Sept. 5
After Wilkerson spoke with the Rotarians, Niehaus discussed the third annual veterans golf outing at 9 a.m. Sept. 5 at the Woodbine Golf Club in Homer Glen. The event honors veterans and is free to all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are at least 21 years old.
“At the end of the day, it’s a thank you for your service,” Niehaus said about the outing. “We appreciate what you did. We realize we can’t give you all Rolexes, but you can have a free, fun day of golf.”