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Some heroes gave more than they got

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by Kevin Cullen
Boston Globe

Bart Graham was in his dress greens the other day, lying in a casket at the foot of the altar in Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Lieutenant Colonel Barton H. Graham Jr., US Army, retired, was a soldier, and he was surrounded by soldiers for this, what in the great African-American churches they call a homegoing.

It is doubtful Bart Graham would have become a soldier, much less a highly decorated officer, if not for the old black men who sat in the second row on the left side of the church. They are Tuskegee Airmen, that generation of African-American patriots who loved their country more than their country loved them back.

“We talk to the kids and they say, ‘Oh, you guys are from Alabama,’ ” Willie Shellman was saying. “And we say, ‘No, we’re from everywhere. We’re from the streets where you walk.’ ”

Shellman pointed to some old men, waiting for Bart Graham’s funeral to start.

“All those men grew up here, in Roxbury,” he said.

On this Memorial Day, as we pause to remember the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who died in service to this country, a black man may become the next president. But there are men in this town who served in a military that at one time was, like the rest of the country, separate and not equal.

“I went into the Air Force in 1944 and we were in Wichita Falls, Texas, and there was a dance one night, and there was a black band, Jimmie Lunceford’s band, and I remember the black soldiers were on one side and the white soldiers were on the other and I thought, ‘This can’t be good,’ ” Willis Saunders was saying.

“A black soldier went over and asked a white lady to dance, and she accepted, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no.’ We got to fighting and running. The white guys were chasing us and there were these metal bedposts in the bunk rooms so we armed ourselves with bedposts. They chased us all night. There was this one African-American soldier and he got cornered and the MPs told him to drop the bedpost but he wouldn’t, because he was so scared.”

So they shot him.

Saunders got lucky. There was a white officer, a guy from Arlington, who sidled up to him one day as Saunders washed a B-25 bomber at an air base in Pensacola.

“He liked my work ethic and put me on the crew changing tires and making sure the planes were all right. I learned to fly,” he said.

Harvey Sanford, who went to high school with Saunders at the old Boston Trade, was on a train from Atlanta to Tuskegee when some soldiers, Southerners, cornered one of their white flying instructors.

“You try’na make them smart?” one of the Southerners asked menacingly.

“Then they beat the hell out of him,” said Harvey Sanford, who is 83 years old. “Nearly killed him.”

Like other Tuskegee Airmen, Saunders came back from World War II and made something of himself, joining the Boston Police Department, rising to the rank of deputy superintendent.

In the middle of the eulogies, Saunders walked to the pulpit. He’ll turn 81 next month, and he’s not as spry as when he was chasing bad guys for the 36 years he was a cop, but he still has his fastball.

“Bart Graham was a war hero,” Willis Saunders said. “He was our brother, our comrade, and a member of our chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Graham’s heroism went beyond the jungles of Vietnam, where he took lives and saved lives and managed to win just about every commendation, from the Bronze Star to the Purple Heart. It was the way he comported himself before and after he went to war. He was, like the old soldiers who inspired him, a role model. He looked after young people in Roxbury, tried to steer them away from bad choices. He was, Saunders explained, a terrific father figure in a community that needs more of them.

“From the South End, all through Roxbury, what we call The Corridor, we had family values, and Barton Graham was a product of family values,” Saunders said. “Barton’s parents were the king and the queen, and their family was the country. Barton Graham carried himself with class and with dignity. He was a pillar of the Roxbury community. He was an officer and a gentleman.”

Willis Saunders stopped looking at his notes and looked at Beverley Graham, Bart’s wife of 42 years, and their children, Judith and Stephen, and then, sounding more like a grandfather than a cop or a solider, he said, “You are part of our family. No matter where you go in this country. The Tuskegee Airmen are your family.”

The original Tuskegee Airmen were the pilots and crews who flew and maintained warplanes during and after World War II, but today’s members include the successor generations, military men like Bart Graham. When a Tuskegee Airman dies, he becomes a Lonely Eagle. Bart Graham was 68 when he became a Lonely Eagle last week.

The Rev. Arthur Gerald Jr. stood up and told a story. He said Bart Graham was a great church man, and spoke in Twelfth Baptist on more than one occasion, but the preacher remembered one time in particular.

“Bart said Vietnam veterans weren’t treated right. He said they weren’t looked at or saluted or paid tribute,” he said. “Bart was up in this pulpit, and he cried. He was a strong man, but he cried, because no one recognized these people who served this country in an unpopular war.”

Rev. Gerald turned his gaze to the Tuskegee Airmen. They are easy to spot, because on occasions like this they wear grey slacks, blue blazers and ties the same shade of red that was on the tails of their fighter planes.

“We have here some of the most prestigious men who ever served their country,” the preacher said. “The Tuskegee Airmen are here today.”

He asked them to rise, and so they did, those old creaky bones defying gravity. Willis Saunders got up. So did Willie Shellman. Then Harvey Sanford, and James McLaurin, and Donald Callender. It was as if Maya Angelou was beckoning them, because still they rose. These proud old warriors kept standing up, one by one. Joseph Hall stood up. William Bennett rose. DelBrook Binns got up.

Eight Tuskegee Airmen stood there and applause washed over them. Rev. Gerald asked the other veterans in the congregation to rise, and two dozen more – some of them much younger, some of them women, some of them white – stood up and everyone clapped and thought how much Bart Graham would have loved all this.

The Weeks brothers, John and William, were sitting on opposite sides of the altar, John at the organ, William at the piano, and when they launched into the Negro spiritual “I’ll Fly Away,” the church was rocking. You could feel the energy, a power that seemed like it would lift Bart Graham straight up to heaven. But you couldn’t help thinking that every year there are fewer Tuskegee Airmen and more Lonely Eagles.

They wheeled Bart Graham’s casket to the back of the church and opened the lid one last time so people could say goodbye before they drove him down to Bourne, to the National Cemetery, where old soldiers go to rest forever.

One by one, the Tuskegee Airmen marched to the back, some slower than others, and one by one they paused in front of the open casket and they stood straight, like arrows, these old warriors, these great Americans, and they snapped off a final salute to Lieutenant Colonel Barton H. Graham Jr.

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