(FloridaToday.com) - Tuskegee Airman Hiram Mann was among the legendary black airmen who proved their mettle as fighter pilots and crew in World War II.
Titusville's Mann, who was one of the few surviving original Tuskegee Airmen pilots, has died. He would have turned 93 this week.
As a young man, Mann set his goal of becoming a pilot and went on to achieve much more. Over the years, he's encouraged young people to set goals and pursue their dreams.
Nathan Thomas, a retired Army colonel, often traveled with Mann, accompanying him to appearances in the U.S. and abroad. He said he learned so much from Mann that he couldn't get from history books.
"We had so many good memories on our trips," Thomas said. "He kept me laughing. He was my mentor, my friend and a father figure. I will miss him."
Mann 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.
He 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. About 990 black pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Of those, 450 served in combat. They later became known as Tuskegee Airmen.
At the time, some believed that training blacks as pilots would fail. But the men went on to prove their doubters wrong, and become among the best during the war.
Their story was depicted in the movies "Tuskegee Airmen" (1995) and "Red Tails" (2012). In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award.
The Walterboro, S.C. chapter of Tuskegee Airmen is named the Hiram Mann Tuskegee Airman Chapter.
"Hiram was a great guy," said fellow Tuskegee Airman Donald Williams, 91, of Merritt Island, who served as a draftsman. "He had the good stories. I'm so sorry he is gone."
John Gay, president of the local Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Chapter, said his uncle served with Mann. Mann, who was his godfather, died after a short illness Saturday, he said.
"I'm stunned," he said. "It happened so fast."
Bob Hughes, a former pilot instructor who helped to train Mann and other Tuskegee Airmen, said that in recent years they became close.
"We have been best of friends," Hughes said. "He was always encouraging, especially young black kids to get an education."
Mann's son, Eugene Mann of Titusville, said growing up, there were always fellow airmen around. And only later 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."
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.' "
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Funeral services for Mann will be Friday at St. James AME Church at 625 Dummitt Ave. in Titusville. The time of the viewing and the service had not been determined Sunday night.