Lee A. Hayes, who was trained as a B-25 bomber pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, but found it impossible to land a job in commercial aviation because of the color of his skin when he sought work after returning home, was remembered for his dignity in the face of persistent discrimination and his devotion to his family at a funeral service at Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton on Monday.
Mr. Hayes, who was 91 and suffered a series of strokes after breaking his hip in September, died at home on Town Lane in East Hampton on Dec. 4.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the church, of which he was a charter member, for the service. The Rev. Michael Jackson officiated. On display in the church were photographs and other mementos from Mr. Hayes’s career with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-Americans to be cleared for flight by the United States military, although in a segregated unit. A U.S. Coast Guard honor guard stood watch during the service, and East Hampton Town police officers attended.
East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. said that Mr. Hayes had taught him a great deal. “We each came from vastly different backgrounds, and didn’t I get an earful about prejudice on Long Island,” he said. Mr. Rickenbach recounted how Mr. Hayes, who ran a contracting business for a time, would return to job sites to find crosses with K.K.K. written on them. Mr. Rickenbach also said that when Mr. Hayes was in the service, he and other African-Americans, “although they held officer commissions were denied admission to the officers club.”
Yet, he added, Mr. Hayes never seemed embittered by his experiences. “What class he had,” the mayor said. Representative Tim Bishop also paid tribute, recalling that he had presented a Congressional Gold Medal to Mr. Hayes at a ceremony at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton in 2007. Members of the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard, who are based there, lined up to shake his hand. “They were in awe of him,” he said.
Mr. Hayes, who was an East Hampton Town Democratic committeeman and once ran unsuccessfully for town assessor, was also remembered by former East Hampton Town Supervisor Judith Hope, who called him “a source of quiet strength” in the organization of the party as a viable local political force.
His family said that Mr. Hayes was instrumental in getting the first black poll watcher as well as the first African-American hired by the U.S. Postal Service in East Hampton. Mr. Jackson pointed out that after the war, when Mr. Hayes applied for aviation-related jobs, he was always told when it came time for the “face-to-face interview that the position had been filled.”
“He was a hero,” said his daughter, Karyls Johnson of East Hampton, who added that “he loved every second” of the attention he received later in life for his role as a Tuskegee Airman. “He was very proud. He knew how big a deal it was and he loved sharing that,” she said.
What he did not share with his family, she said, were stories of the racism he encountered at home. “He never told us about them, he never complained to us,” Ms. Johnson said.
Mr. Hayes became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen largely by chance. Drafted in 1943, he was sent to an airbase in Florida, where he first instructed his fellow soldiers in the art of camouflage. When he and another black soldier had the highest scores on a written exam, it paved the way for them to join a new bomber unit of the Tuskegee Airmen, whose success as fighter pilots in the war against Germany had finally convinced military brass to begrudgingly further ease flight restrictions on African-Americans.
Mr. Hayes, who had dreamed of flying airplanes from the time he was a child, was first sent to Texas for training as a bombardier on the Mitchell B-25 bomber, which carried a crew of five. But Mr. Hayes said in an interview that the military was in no hurry to expand the role of blacks in aviation, and the training moved forward at a snail’s pace. After becoming a bombardier and receiving a commission as a second lieutenant, Mr. Hayes was sent to Alabama to be trained as a pilot with the 477th Bomber Wing. Although he was one of only a handful of students to pass the training class, the war ended before the unit was ready for active duty.
Mr. Hayes, who was the oldest of 13 children, was born on June 20, 1922, in Manboro, Va., to Garlie Lee and Jenny Hayes. His father worked at a sawmill until it closed in 1930, and the family moved north, where an uncle who lived in Sagaponack helped them find work on the Griffing family dairy farm on Hand Lane in Amagansett. Mr. Hayes attended the Amagansett School and three years at East Hampton High School before he had to quit school to help support the family. After the war, he returned to East Hampton, where school officials awarded him his diploma without requiring him to finish school, and he enrolled at Farmingdale State College, where he studied airplane maintenance and operations.
Although he was unable to find work as a pilot, Mr. Hayes worked for a time for Goble Aircraft, which kept a warehouse in Montauk. Besides his contracting work, he also sold life insurance for Prudential and worked as a janitor at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Mr. Hayes was married to the former Marion Jones, and the couple had two children, Ms. Johnson and Craig Hayes, also of East Hampton.
After his wife’s death in 1985, Mr. Hayes kept busy as a regular visitor to the East Hampton Town Senior Citizen Center and as a member of American Legion Post 419 in Amagansett. As a Tuskegee Airman, he also found himself in demand as a speaker at local schools and civic clubs.
Besides his children, Mr. Hayes is survived by a sister, Helen I. Hillman of East Hampton, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His siblings Willie Hayes, James Hayes, Glenn Hayes, Hester Hayes-Graham, Evelyn Carter, George Hayes, Jenny Jones, Dixie Jayne Casiel, Queen Davis-Parks, Eleanor Williams, and Robert Hayes died before him.
Mr. Hayes was cremated. His ashes were buried at Calverton National Cemetery.