- Sue Tryforos, Borough Historian
THOMAS L. HAWKINS: HERO FROM THE ROCK
Thomas Lawson Hawkins was born in 1923 in Springfield, Massachusetts and moved to Glen Rock with his parents, William and Rebecca, when he was a young child. The family lived in several homes over the years, residing on Hamilton Avenue and Broad Street before settling on Dean Street around 1941.
Hawkins was very bright and athletic and had a gift for vocal music. He attended Central School, Glen Rock's new Junior High School on Harristown Road, and Ridgewood High School (as most Glen Rock students did at the time), graduating as a member of RHS Class of 1942.
In high school, Hawkins was a member of the track and football teams and of the Glee Club and A Capella Choir. His family attended the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church on South Broad Street where he sang in the Junior Choir. He attended Temple University's School of Chiropody in Philadelphia, determined to become a podiatrist, but it was a time of war and a college degree would have to wait. On March 17, 1943, Hawkins enlisted in the Army Air Forces and began his training to become one of World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen.
The recruits enlisted into a program that was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the objections of his top generals. The program's goal was to train African-American men to fly and maintain combat aircraft. This was a revolutionary concept for a country that was still deeply segregated, especially in the South where much of the flight training was to take place.
Both of Thomas' parents were born in Virginia so perhaps Cadet Hawkins was not as shocked as some of the other northern recruits when they first encountered Jim Crow laws while traveling to basic training in Mississippi and Alabama. Union Station in Washington, DC was the demarcation line for many; at that point in the journey, the train conductor forced all black passengers to move to a designated car, which was the dirty, smoky, smelly car directly behind the coal car. Tuskegee Airman Maurice Thomas, a native New Yorker, told author J. Todd Moye, "I'll tell you the God's honest truth: when I got into the South, I thought I was in a loony bin."
After basic training, the men were assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Macon County, Alabama for flight instruction. The entire program at TAAF - instruction, administration, cadets, maintenance and support - was strictly segregated.
Many government and military leaders did not support the Tuskegee program so the training facilities were initially inadequate, but by 1945 almost 1,000 pilots had been trained and 450 Tuskegee Airmen served overseas, flying over 1,500 missions in Africa and Europe. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was an early and very public supporter of the program, as was Sen. Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri).
U.S. military strategy was to use heavy bombers based in Italy to pound away at German industrial targets, and the Red Tails (officially the 332nd Fighter Group) were fighter escorts used to protect the bombers on their missions. The "Red Tails" nickname came about because of the bright red paint used on the tail of their planes - the pilots wanted everyone, friend and foe, to know that they were on the job. The 332nd was so skilled and proficient that the bomber crews began referring to them as the "Red Tail Angels". In November 1944, Flight Officer Hawkins was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, and by January 1st he had 28 missions and three kills to his credit. He was awarded the Air Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster in early 1945 for bombing missions against German trains carrying supplies to the Russian Front. Soon after, he was named flight leader of his group and was in command of a squadron of nine pilots. He named his P-51 Mustang "Gloria" after the woman he married in Alabama on Christmas Day in 1943. [Photo shows Flight Officer Hawkins in his plane]
On March 7, 1945, Flight Officer Hawkins was killed taking off from the Ramitelli Airdrome in Italy when his plane crashed on the runway during a mission to Munich. He was 21 years old. Fellow Airman Harold H. Brown, a classmate of Hawkins, recounts the accident in his book Keep Your Airspeed Up: "I remember vividly [a] takeoff accident involving a fellow classmate, Thomas L. Hawkins. During the takeoff roll out, Hawkins lost control of his aircraft and ran into a revetment area that provided a barricade of protection for other planes. He crashed into one of the parked planes, resulting in an explosion. Men in the area raced to his aid, but couldn't get close due to the heat."
When he crashed, Hawkins was in an unfamiliar plane. The "Gloria" experienced engine trouble that morning so he switched to a different airplane in order to complete his mission.
After the war, the veterans of the 332nd Fighter Group returned to a United States still decades away from the enactment of the Civil Rights Act (1964). They came home to continuing discrimination in housing, jobs and education. Their exemplary performance in battle helped convince President Harry S. Truman to sign Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the U. S. Armed Services in 1948. This Order opened up job opportunities in the military for African-Americans that were still denied to them in the private sector
In March 2007, President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the most prestigious medal Congress can bestow, to the Tuskegee Airmen for their contributions and sacrifices made decades earlier. At the presentation ceremony, former Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the 300 airmen, widows and other relatives gathered in the Capitol rotunda: "Why did you serve a nation that would not serve you? When the conflict was over, you returned to the same conditions. You still believed in a vision of what the Declaration and Constitution set forth of what America could be. Thank you for what you did for African-Americans. Thank you for what you've done for America."
Thomas L. Hawkins' name is on the Glen Rock War Memorial on the grounds of the Municipal Building so that we never forget the sacrifice and patriotism of those who have died in the service of our country.
Click here to view a 33 minute documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv4HtBaKKXs&feature=youtu.be&t=1