Retired Lt. Col. Leo Gray, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who were the first African-American fighter pilots in the military, died at his home in Florida. He was 92.
Gray recently visited Montgomery this summer and was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, nicknamed the "Red Tails" who flew over Europe during World War II.
Only 18 Tuskegee Airman who flew P-51 fighter planes in the war are still living today -- less than 6 percent of the original 304 pilots who flew between June 1944 and April 1945.
That doesn't include Tuskegee Airmen who flew P-40s, P-39s or P-47s or those who flew with the 477th Bombardment Group.
In June, Gray joined a dozen other aviation legends at Maxwell Air Force Base for the 35th annual Gathering of Eagles event. He shared his role of signing up to fight with 1,000 other Tuskegee Airmen pilots.
Gray knew that they were fighting for their country, but he didn't realize his service would eventually eliminate segregation in the military. Nearly 14,000 Tuskegee Airmen who didn't train to become pilots helped maintain and support aircraft maintenance, runways and day-to-day operations.
"We were just doing what we were supposed to do," Gray had told the Montgomery Advertiser. "We were trying to become pilots in the United States Air Force with no thought at all of the historical significance that was taking place."
At that time, African-Americans were deemed unfit both physically and mentally to fly something as complex as an aircraft. Gray and others who volunteered to fly in the 1940s, proved the myth wrong. In fact, the Tuskegee Airmen, were recognized for an excellent flying record.
"They said we couldn't fly, but we thought we could," Gray said. "Everyone else could fly. Everyone's blood turns red."
Gray was a single-engine pilot for with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. After his graduation from the Tuskegee Army Air Field, he was sent to Ramitelli, Italy, as a combat fighter in the P-51 Mustang. He completed 15 combat missions over German-occupied territory escorting B-24 and B-17 bombers.
After logging 750 flying hours, he left the service in 1946 and served in the Air Force Reserves until 1984 and served a total of 41 years. Those years in the service were the most memorable of his life, Gray said. He appreciates the camaraderie he still has with fellow veterans who bonded during service.
A Boston native, Gray had enlisted after high school and used his story of "overcoming adversity," to encourage audiences around the nation.