At age 90, former Tuskegee Airman Melvin Frisby arrives at a South Jersey senior center hours before lunch.
He shows up early not to get in line, but to serve meals to his peers. Frisby also occasionally serves up stories about his service in the legendary Tuskegee group, the first black pilots in American military history, who overcame racial barriers and discrimination to serve the country with distinction.
Frisby, of Sicklerville, lived out a childhood dream that began on his family farm in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, where he learned how to fly. He later became a member of the elite group of aviators and served in the Army Air Force and the Air Force from 1946 to 1962.
For years, Frisby seldom spoke about his experiences among the seniors, who meet twice a week for lunch at the Michael J. DiPiero Center in Blackwood, where Camden County provides senior services. Many were surprised when his story emerged two years ago, when he was awarded a county Military Service Medal.
Since then, the soft-spoken Frisby has become a celebrity of sorts at the center, where seniors gather on Tuesdays and Thursdays for lunch, fellowship, and activities such as bingo. They range in age, and the eldest in the group is 99.
“I think it’s wonderful what he did — a war hero,” said Marie Beres, 76, of Sicklerville. “He’s a great man. We love Mel.”
Frisby, the second oldest of five children, grew up on a dairy farm in Aliquippa, a small town on the Ohio River. He didn’t like school and thought about dropping out, but a neighbor who owned several airplanes promised to teach him how to fly if he graduated.
After months of training, Frisby finally got a chance to climb into the cockpit of an old mail plane. More than seven decades later, he can still remember the thrill of the aircraft moving down the runway, picking up speed.
“I could feel the plane start to lift up. I wasn’t earthbound anymore,” he said.
The neighbor suggested that Frisby continue his training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He arrived in 1946, a few months after the war ended. He was a member of the sixth class, the last to train there as part of the “Tuskegee Experience.”
Frisby credits the World War II pilots who came before him, such as Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who later became the first black general in the Air Force. They dispelled myths about black pilots and helped pave the way for President Harry S. Truman to issue an executive order to integrate the armed services in 1948.
Nearly 1,000 black pilots received their wings at Tuskegee. They were called “red-tail angels” by the bomber squadrons they escorted because of the red-painted tails on their airplanes.
“Those are the men who got their foot in the door. They kept it open,” Frisby said. “They did a damn good job.”
The Tuskegee Airmen and other black service members experienced the sting of prejudice while fighting for the freedom of others. They served in segregated units and were often assigned to poor living conditions. When they came home after the war, they returned to the same discrimination they had left.
“The Tuskegee Airmen represented a powerful rebuke to the segregated military in which they served,” said Jennifer Mittelstadt, a Rutgers University military history professor. “The airmen’s success, eventually in combat in Europe and North Africa, paved the way for military desegregation.”
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to more than 300 Tuskegee Airmen in recognition for their service during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen served from 1941 to 1949 and also included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, and instructors.
Frisby has little memorabilia from his Tuskegee Airman days, except his military discharge papers, a DD 214, a black-and-white photo with three pilots from his unit, and his memories. Two of the pilots in the photograph died during combat. He stays in touch with the sole surviving member of their squadron.
After graduating from Tuskegee, Frisby was deployed to Greenland, Alaska, and Tinian Island in the South Pacific, the launching point for the atomic bombs against Japan. He saw combat duty during the Korean War, where he flew P-51 airplanes, which were considered “the Cadillac of all planes.” He has no idea how many missions he flew.
“I never even stopped to count. I just did it,” Frisby recalled.
In 1962, Frisby was discharged from the military after 16 years and returned home. Back in Philadelphia, Frisby discovered that his marriage was over, and finding a job would not prove easy. He was left to raise the couple’s five children, who included two sets of twins.
Frisby made the rounds at the airlines at Philadelphia International Airport, looking for a job as a commercial pilot “because that’s what I knew how to do.” But none would hire him. He believes it was because of racial prejudice.
“They said the quota was filled,” he said.
Eventually, Frisby landed a job as an upholsterer at the Chrysler assembly plant in Newark, Del. He had learned upholstery as a child from his grandfather, who did upholstery work on horse-drawn carriages. He retired from the plant, which was shut down in 2009.
Frisby started working at the senior center about 15 years ago. He wanted something to do outside of his pastimes of fishing, bowling, and swimming. He belongs to the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Philadelphia and attends Christ Care Missionary Baptist Church in Sicklerville.
“I don’t believe in sitting around doing nothing. When iron and steel lies around, it gets rusty,” he jokes.
On a recent afternoon, about two dozen senior citizens sat at tables in the lunchroom. After lunch, Frisby made his rounds, showing them his Tuskegee photo. Only a few could correctly pick out the dashingly handsome 20-year-old pilot.
“He’s a nice guy. He always says hello,” said Marie Garofalo, 88, of Sicklerville. “That means a lot.”
Frisby gets nostalgic when he reminisces about his flying days. The oldest of his 15 grandchildren followed in his footsteps and is a Navy pilot.
“I wish I was up there now,” he said. “When you get above the clouds, you can see forever. If you have enough fuel, you can fly around heaven all day.
© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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