METHUEN — When 84-year-old Luther McIlwain spoke at the podium, his words were both truthful and humorous.
“I’m standing up here and I’m tired,” McIlwain explained. “It’s not easy getting up at midnight to shower, shave and get ready. Then at five o’clock start to look out the window and wait for a guy to pick me up at nine o’clock.”
A Tuskegee airman from World War II, McIlwain is receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award, later this year from President Bush, but first McIlwain was honored on May 26 by his hometown, Methuen.
“This is a proud day for Methuen,” Mayor William Manzi said. “I have known this man since I was a younger man.”
Air Force Major Richard Hamilton was McIlwain’s chauffeur for the day.
“I picked him up and drove him to the event,” Hamilton said. “Because we owe him that much.”
The ceremony took place in the Great Hall of the Searles Building and it seemed only fitting considering McIlwain was a 1939 graduate of Edward F. Searles High School.
Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American pilots who flew for the United States Army Air Forces in World War II.
“Prior to the Tuskegee, all pilots were white,” City Councilor-at-Large Kathleen Corey Rahme explained. “Blacks were told they were unfit for leadership roles and to be pilots.”
In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created an all-black training for pilots.
“The black pilots trained just outside Tuskegee, Ala.,” Rahme said. “Which is where they get their name from.”
The airmen, who flew P-51 Mustangs, were escorts for the bomber groups. The Allies called the airmen “Redtails” because of the paint job on their planes and often requested they escort them on their missions. According to Wikipedia, the Redtails were the only fighter group to never lose a bomber to enemy fighters.
McIlwain thought philosophically about his parents while he spoke to the audience.
“Somewhere there is a mother and a father looking down saying, ‘Job well done’,” McIlwain said. “My mom would say, ‘I know you can do it.’ And, ‘What took you so long?’ Yep, that old man of mine would ask that.”
McIlwain seemed modest about his accomplishments and said it took him to write his speech.
“I am really honored, flattered accepting this honor.” McIlwain said. “This honor and dedication is an ‘us’ business. My community, my friends, you know who you are. I want to accept this for a dear friend of mine from the Second World War. I used to ask him ‘What should I do?’ And he would say, ‘Don’t ask me, just do it.’ That’s what I’ve done. Thank you.”
As McIlwain posed for pictures with city officials, friends and admirers, he kept his humor in tact.
Councilor Rahme kissed McIlwain’s cheek when she presented him with a citation. Photographers asked Rahme to do it again with fear of missing a great photo opportunity. McIlwain didn’t mind and if fact kept saying they missed the picture and requested she do it again.
“I’m still a devil at heart,” McIlwain said sheepishly.
Manzi presented McIlwain with a Mayoral Citation and one from the state Senate and U.S. House of Representatives signed by state Sen. Steven Baddour and U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan.