By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter New Journal and Guide
Known as the “Greatest Generation,” they played key roles in American history, specifically fighting in and winning WWII, parenting the Baby Boomers, and contributing to the nation’s post-war economic and cultural renaissance.
Come April 30 to May 3 in Norfolk’s Scope Arena, during the 24th annual Virginia International Tattoo (VIT), that legacy will be put on display and honored.
The 2020 VIT which is part of the Virginia Arts Festival will salute the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II, as it brings a world class display of inspirational military music from various lands, massed bag-pipe and drum units, show-stopping drill team maneuvers, color, and elegant dancers.
More than 1,000 musicians, dancers, and other artists from seven different countries – Australia, Canada, Latvia, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States – will participate in the 24th annual Tattoo.
The sacrifice and dedication of all of the veterans of U.S. service branches will be featured.
“For the past 24 years, the Tattoo hasn’t just entertained people, it has inspired them; from the moment when the audiences’ hands touch their hearts during the Star-Spangled Banner to when the families jump to their feet when hero veterans’ service song is sung,” said J. Scott Jackson, during a recent press conference announcing the plans and line up for the 2020 VIT. He wears the hat of Producer and Director of the VIT.
“We are so honored that dozens of WWII veterans, often with the help and support of their families, have already made plans to join us,” Jackson continued. “And, of course, we welcome all WWII veterans and their families from throughout the United States to join us at the 2020 Tattoo.
“Nothing could be more inspiring than to share the Tattoo with the Americans whose service and sacrifice forever defined the Greatest Generation.”
Norfolk Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander attended the kickoff event.
He said every sixth-grader in the city will be able to attend the event because they will see viable examples of “civics, discipline” and take in the rich military history the region and the nation have to offer.
The mayor said that Norfolk’s Tattoo is the largest in the country and is the fifth largest internationally.
Rob Cross, the Artistic Director of the Virginia Arts Festival, said people from 47 states and the District of Columbia and many foreign countries attended last year’s event.
One group of veterans whose contributions during WWII will be heralded during the 2020 Tattoo are the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first Black military aviators who formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. The title included not only pilots but also navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks, and other support personnel who served during WWII.
Three Tuskegee Airmen appeared at the Virginia Tattoo program press conference and kick-off last week.
Harry Quinton is deemed an “original” and verified member of the aging Black men who served in the various Tuskegee Airmen units, which were segregated from the white ones.
Quinton is 93, lives in Williamsburg now and still works at a restaurant in the area.
According to T. J. Spann, a leader of the Tidewater Tuskegee Airman Chapter, Quinton is one of the three remaining “original” members of the local unit.
Quinton said the war was well underway by the time he enlisted for service in 1944.
He said he knew his “number would come up” and he would be drafted like his friends had been.
So until his number was called, he attended the Casey Jones School of Aeronautics in Newark, NJ and the Atlantic Aviation School in Trenton, NJ.
He was certified as an Aeronautical Mechanic by the Civilian Avian Board.
Quinton hoped his extensive pre-military training would help him get an assignment, quickly with the Tuskegee Airmen who were chalking up respectable military records of performance against Nazi forces.
“But it did not happen the way I had dreamed and wanted,” he recalled. “The 99th was already overseas by the time I enlisted and began my military training,” said Quinton. “So they formed the 477th bomber group. We prepared and had already packed up when they dropped the bombs in Japan. The war was over. We never got to fight.”
Tuskegee Air units and regular Black soldiers were ignored by the mainstream press.
But the African-American press, notably the Norfolk Journal and Guide, dispatched reporters and photographers to the training centers and overseas to the theaters of conflict to record the bravery and contributions of Black soldiers and sailors.
Although the 477th Bombardment Group trained with North American B-25 (Billy) Mitchell bombers, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later, the 99th Fighter Squadron) was the first Black flying squadron, and the first to deploy overseas to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy. The 332nd Fighter Group, which originally included the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, was the first Black flying group. It deployed to Italy in early 1944.
In June 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group began flying heavy bomber escort missions and, in July 1944, with the addition of the 99th Fighter Squadron, it had four fighter squadrons.
Quinton served three years before he left the military with the rank of Sergeant.
Quinton, who was an Aviation Mechanic, as well as many Black pilots and other veterans with high tech skills, served to protect freedom and equality overseas and home.
But post-war America did not open its employment doors to Black veterans returning home.
The U.S. Military war machine not only produced the materials of destruction, but it also produced technology that advanced the nation’s economy and the job market. Yet, highly skilled pilots and aviation technicians were denied employment in the nation’s modernized and expanding commercial air industry because of racial patches and bias against African-Americans.
“It was really hard to find a job … again,” he said. “So I took my G.I. Bill and attended college (at Long Island University) and got a degree in accounting and business administration.”
Quinton said he landed a job at the Social Security Administration.
Then he worked as an accountant with the Pan American Airlines and spent 23 years with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) before he retired.
Quinton recalls this is not the first time an “original” Tuskegee Airman has been featured at the Virginia International Tattoo.
They were honored several years ago. Now he is the only one of the four who were feted then, still alive.
“It is important that the people know our history,” said Quinton, who was born in Salisbury, Maryland. “Our history and contributions have been forgotten, hidden or not mentioned. I am glad to share my experiences with the younger generation.”
For tickets, performance times and other information related to the Virginia Arts Festival and the International Tattoo go to www.vafest.org or (757) 282-2822.