The nation’s first African American fighter pilots were often scorned when breaking military color barriers in the 1940s, but they were heroes to young Walterboro native Johnnie Thompson.

“I was 12 or 13 and used to see them come downtown in their sharp uniforms,” Thompson recalled seeing Tuskegee Airmen who received combat training in Walterboro in the 1940s. “I just had to go into the military.”

Thompson joined the service in 1948, the year President Harry Truman signed an order to desegregate the military.

“The accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen made that happen. They proved their grit,” Thompson said, noting that some didn’t believe African Americans had the moxie to serve in certain roles.

The Tuskegee Airmen served during World War II as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff and instructors, jobs once unavailable to African Americans.

Walterboro holds a special place in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and military desegregation. It was one of the places where the famous Tuskegee Airmen received combat training after their initial pilot instruction in Tuskegee, Ala. More than 300 Tuskegee Airmen trained in Walterboro, estimated Thompson, who helped to form the local Hiram E. Mann Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. foundation.

Clemson University Extension agent Alta Mae Marvin receives an award for her support in spotlighting the nation’s first African American fighter pilots to serve in the military during World War II and Walterboro’s place in military history.

Clemson University Extension agent Alta Mae Marvin receives the 2015 Most Valuable Supporter award from the Hiram E. Mann Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Marvin is the first non-member to receive the groups highest honor. 

For her part in helping to share this history, Clemson Extension agent Alta Mae Marvin became the first non-member to receive the local foundation’s highest annual honor. Her work with the group is part of Clemson Extension’s aim to promote economic and community development in rural places.

“We have a gold mine here,” she said. “These men want to share the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and I just really admire that. The Tuskegee Airmen faced a lot of hardship, but these men just want to focus on their accomplishments.”

Recipient of the group’s 2015 Most Valuable Supporter Award, Marvin has worked with the group over the past 15 years to secure grant funding and donations to expand the Walterboro Army Airfield Memorial Park and establish a headquarters building for the local Tuskegee Airmen chapter. Marvin has worked to secure funds to add interpretative signage at the memorial telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. She created a service-learning project with local 7th graders who conducted some of the research for the project. Marvin worked with the S.C. Department of Archives and History in getting a Historical Marker placed at the chapter office located on the site of the Tuskegee Airmen’s barracks in the 1944-45. She worked with the legislative delegation in naming the Colleton County section of Interstate 95 Tuskegee Memorial Highway.

“Alta Mae has just been invaluable to us,” said Thompson, one of the organization’s founding members and historian.

Said another founding member and past president, Franklin Smalls, “we felt very honored and grateful to her for helping us out. She has done so many things to help us.”

A Walterboro native, Marvin said German prisoners of war worked on her grandfather’s farm during World War II. This was common across the country due to labor shortages caused by the war, according to reports by the Smithsonian magazine.

“My grandmother served them warm meals every day because that’s how she would have wanted her son to be treated if he were captured at war,” Marvin said. “German POWs were treated better than the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Marvin’s father, noted South Carolina architect and Clemson alum Robert Marvin, served in World War II. Decades later, he developed the master plan for the Tuskegee Monument in Walterboro in 1994. The monument opened in 1997 to a crowd of 3,000 people.

“Tuskegee Airmen were railroaded out in 1944. They were welcomed back in 1994,” Thompson said.

Since that time, Clemson architecture experts have redesigned the monument’s grounds at the Lowcountry Regional Airport in Walterboro, which was used as a branch of Fort Jackson during World War II.

The Hiram E. Mann Chapter of TAI was founded in 1998. In addition to its work preserving and sharing the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, the chapter has awarded college scholarships to 22 local high school graduates seeking careers in aeronautics. Ten of those students also received scholarships from the national Tuskegee Airmen Inc. foundation.

“These are great men,” Marvin said.

Thompson provides tours of the monument and local Tuskegee Museum and office, 1477 Tuskegee Airman Drive. For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen, visit the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum online here or the national Tuskegee Airmen foundation online here.

Last year, Marvin created a guest registry for visitors to sign. More than 1,200 people from across the country signed it in the first year.

“I just get so pumped reading those comments,” Thompson said.