Hiram Mann, one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, has died at age 92 after a brief illness.
Mann was one of the few remaining pilots of the all-black group of airmen whose story was first brought to the fore in the eponymous 1995 TV movie. In 2007, they were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Their story was also told in a 2012 big-screen movie "Red Tails."
Mann, who was from Titusville, flew 48 combat missions as a pilot during World War II in Europe and went on to serve more than 21 years in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, reports Florida Today.
Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no black pilots had served in the military. Mann was among the first black pilots and crews to be trained by the U.S. military to be part of 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Medium Bombardment Group. They later collectively became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, because they trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Ultimately, 450 of the men trained there served in combat.
Mann wanted to be a pilot from a very young age, and he used his story of determination to motivate others throughout his life, Florida Today reports.
Bob Hughes, a former pilot instructor who helped to train Mann and other Tuskegee Airmen, said that in recent years they became close, Florida Today reports.
"He was always encouraging, especially young black kids to get an education," Hughes said.
Mann's son, Eugene Mann of Titusville, told Florida Today only later in life did he fully learn all of his father's accomplishments.
"I'm very proud of my dad," he said. "He had a struggle to get where he had to go."
The Tuskegee Airmen faced harsh discrimination at home and in the military, and despite fighting for their country, didn't get the same level of acceptance other veterans did upon returning home from World War II. However, the 99th Squadron distinguished itself by being awarded two Presidential Unit Citations (June-July 1943 and May 1944) for outstanding tactical air support and aerial combat in the 12th Air Force in Italy, before joining the 332nd Fighter Group. The 332nd Fighter Group was also awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its longest bomber escort mission to Berlin on March 24, 1945.
In a ceremony honoring them in 2007, then-President George W. Bush said: "These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency. They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens."
Mr. Bush then saluted the airmen, saying he offered the gesture to "help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" they endured.
Eugene Mann said his father would encourage young people to use their minds and to get an education.
"In recent years, his interest was in educating. He said, 'Set goals and reach them.'"