Quinn Thorne is 9 years old. He’s loved flying for as long as he can remember.
Alexander Jefferson is 95 years old. He is one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the World War II squadron of African-American pilots.
The two would seem to be unlikely friends: a young white boy from Idaho and an elderly black veteran from Detroit. But Quinn has a fascination with the Airmen, and veterans like Jefferson are more than happy to welcome his interest.
“Quinn is quite an interesting young person,” says Jefferson in a phone call from his home near Detroit.
Quinn’s interest began with “Red Tails,” the 2012 film about the Airmen. When he turned 5, he met one of the pilots and was then invited to a Tuskegee Airmen convention in Las Vegas. He met several others — including Jefferson — and he’s been hooked ever since. His Facebook page is dotted with photos of him standing next to his heroes.
“Every year I go to the convention,” he says, noting that the next one is in Orlando.
The Tuskegee Airmen have received more notice in recent years, but their story is always worth telling. Before World War II, African-Americans weren’t allowed to fly for the U.S. military. The armed forces were segregated, and Jim Crow laws still dominated the South. During training in Alabama, the early trainees were subjected to prejudice and discrimination.
Even within the military itself, there were doubts that African-Americans were up to the task: a 1925 Army War College study described African-Americans as a “mentally inferior subspecies of the human race.”
“People who never grew up during segregation can’t realize how rigid it was,” pilot Roscoe C. Brown Jr. told the Air Force News Service.
The Tuskegee Airmen, of course, distinguished themselves during the war, particularly with their work in Italy and Germany. Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency credits them with 112 victories. Airman Benjamin O. Davis Jr. later became the Air Force’s first black general.
Quinn is interested in their legacy. World War II veterans like the Tuskegee Airmen are now in their 80s or older; their numbers are sadly dwindling.
“(Their age) concerns me,” says Quinn, worried that they won’t be remembered. “I want to continue their legacy and tell everybody about them.” He has hopes of going into the Air Force himself, knowing that “my friends will be up there with me.”
That’s the kind of legacy Jefferson wants. The longtime teacher and school administrator has worked as a liaison with the military to attract young people into the service.
And it’s not like he’s slowed down. At 95, about the only concession to age he’s made is allowing his granddaughter to drive. Otherwise, the former pilot is still aiming high.
“I’m still active,” he says. “I’m still involved.”