Col. George S. Roberts was among the first African-Americans selected for pilot training at the famed Tuskegee Army Airfield. He commanded a fighter squadron and flew 78 combat missions over Europe during World War II. Upon retirement from the Air Force in 1968, Roberts embarked upon a second career as a banker for Wells Fargo.
The Tuskegee Airmen story is one of the most inspiring of the Civil Rights era. In 1941, Congress mandated an all-African-American flying unit within the U.S. Army Air Corps. In June, the 99th Fighter Squadron formed at Tuskegee Institute, the distinguished university founded in Alabama 60 years earlier by Booker T. Washington.
The African-American squadrons were deployed the following summer in North African and Italian campaigns, which began the record of combat excellence the units established. Black pilots escorted bombers and flew raids, amassing an impressive number of enemy aircraft destroyed, in addition to the tremendous number of Allied bombers they protected. It was hard enough to protect cumbersome bombers from wispy attack planes; it was another thing entirely to keep them intact and shoot down attackers.
Black fighter pilots took on double duty under the stress of combat, and did it with distinction.
Roberts commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group, which saw action over North Africa and Italy. After President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces for good in 1948, Roberts became the first African-American officer to command a racially-mixed unit at Langley Air Force Base in 1950. Roberts returned to combat in Korea, commanding the 51st Air Base Group and the Air Force base at Suwon.
During the Cold War, Roberts oversaw logistics for most of the Air Force’s fighters and all of its missiles in the Pacific. During his 26-year military career, Roberts was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, eleven battle stars and two Presidential Unit Citations.
When Roberts was preparing for retirement from uniform, he was recruited into a banking career by a fellow former pilot and Wells Fargo banker. In 1968, Roberts moved into a new career as a credit officer for Wells Fargo in Sacramento, California. He retired from Wells Fargo in 1982, and died soon after. In honor of his distinguished career, the Sacramento chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen is named after Colonel Roberts.
Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 15, 2008.