BIG FLATS, N.Y. - The last time Bill Strapko and Roscoe C. Brown crossed paths, they were in separate warplanes trying to survive one of the most famous bombing missions in Europe during World War II.
A Memorial Day weekend reunion of some of the last surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen brought the two New Yorkers together nearly 70 years after their units flew from southern Italy to the heart of Nazi Germany to attack Berlin. Strapko, 95, of North Tonawanda, was invited to Saturday's Return of the Red Tails celebration at the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center in Big Flats, near Elmira, The Buffalo News reported.
Six former Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military pilots, attended the event. Among them was Roscoe C. Brown Jr., 92, of New York City, commander of the fighter squadron that escorted Strapko's formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses during the mission to Berlin on March 24, 1945.
At about 1,600 miles roundtrip, it was the European Theater's longest mission flown by American bombers while escorted by fighters -in this case, the 100th Fighter Squadron, known as the Red Tails for the color of their planes' tails. Brown, director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the City University of New York, led the fighters that day.
"We knew it was historic because it was Berlin," Brown told the News in a telephone interview. "We anticipated there would be some opposition, but we didn't know it'd be the German jets. I told my group to drop the fuel tanks and follow me, and we chased them away."
The Germans sent 16 of their new ME-262 jet fighters at the American bombers. The gunners on Strapko's plane were credited with shooting down three of them, while the crews in other B-17s brought down three others.
"No one has anything close to that in the whole war," Strapko said.
When Strapko and Brown met at Saturday's reunion, they shook hands and grabbed each other's shoulders. An organizer of the event knew Strapko had flown the famous mission and invited him to meet the fliers who helped his crew get home safely.
"The fact that you had them there is amazing," said Michael Joseph, chairman of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. "They've gone through wars and here they are, captains of their mission 69 years ago, and they're still here and still speaking and sharing their stories with their fellow Americans."