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One of the last Tuskegee Airman dies at 95

Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Leslie Edwards, a Tuskegee Airman of the 617th Bombardment Squadron, speaks with historians at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 14, 2017. The 617th Bombardment Squadron was one of the four Tuskegee Airmen bomber squadrons during WWII that made up the 477th Bombardment Group. In 2007, the 477th Bombardment Group became the 477th Fighter Group, bringing with it the legacy of Tuskegee Airmen to Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Curt Beach)
September 26, 2019

Leslie Edwards, one of the last Tuskegee Airmen and a self-styled historian of the unit’s service, passed away Monday afternoon.

Edwards, 95, was hospitalized at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center at the time of his passing. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in July, according to WCPO News.

Edwards was drafted into the Air Force in World War II and assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group. He was the Flight Chief of Flight A in the 617th Bomb Squadron, responsible for the flight readiness of five B 25 medium Bombers, according to the National Air & Space Museum.

Edward’s daughter, Imogene Bowers, said that her father never spoke of his time in the military. In fact, she didn’t even know anything about it until she was 50 years old.

“He did not allow any of the focus to be on him. Even when you talked about the Tuskegee Airmen, he never necessarily talked about his experience.” Bowers said. “He talked about what the Tuskegee Airmen did for the world.”

After refraining from sharing his experiences in the military for so many years, Edwards eventually changed course and dedicated much of his time to nationwide public speaking engagements about the Tuskegee Airmen. Edwards went on to receive a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush and he attended both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations.

As a serviceman for the historically black unit, Edwards said they were “welcome to fight and die for their country, but not to live in it as equal citizens.”

The U.S. maintained its segregated units even after World War II.

Edwards at times recalled instances of black servicemen receiving promotions but not being allowed to enter the officer’s club because of their skin color. He would recall an incident in 1945, when black servicemen entered the officer’s club and refused to leave.

“They arrested, like, 19 at one time. And then another group of officers, like 25, go in, and they arrest them,” Edwards said.

According to Edwards, the “Freeman Field mutiny ended in 162 arrest and caused enough of an uproar to begin a concerted push for desegregation in the military.”

Bowers said that her father would was dedicated to recalling Tuskegee Airmen history with precise details when sharing his stories.

“Anything that you said that was not correct, Daddy made sure that you get it correct or else you don’t say anything at all. He was very adamant about details,” Bowers said. “The most important thing he told was how important it was for desegregation in the military.”

Edwards last public speaking engagement was in Alaska, just before he was diagnosed Lou Gehrig’s disease. Following the diagnosis he retired from public life.

Bowers said she stayed with Edwards at the VA hospital. She said when her father eventually could not speak would communicate with her by writing notes.

Bowers said a couple days before her dad passed, she told him, “You might not be large, but you’re still in charge.’ And he smiles and gave me the thumbs up.”

“It’s humbling to see how my father, how God that created the universe, allowed me to have a father in my life that meant so much to me personally and also the people in the world. I want them to always value what he represented,” Bowers said.

Edwards will be buried Oct. 4 at the First Unitarian Church in Avondale with full military honors.