Lemuel Rodney Custis
1915- February 24, 2005
Unit: 99th Fighter Squadron
Lemuel Rodney Custis of Wethersfield, Connecticut, received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Howard University in 1938, he became Hartford’s first African-American police officer in 1939. At the outbreak of WW II, he enlisted in the Army and graduated from Class 42-C at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama in 1942. He was one of the first five men to have the silver wings of the Army Air Force pinned on their chests.
In March of 1942 the black pilots were inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in ceremonies on the airstrip at Tuskegee and later that month the 100th Fighter Squadron was formed as part of the 332nd Fighter Group.
At the time of his death in 2005 it was said Custis was the last surviving member of that first class.
Custis was assigned to the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron, which flew escort and patrol missions in P-40 Warhawks in North Africa, Sicily and Italy from April 1943 to July 1944. Members of the 99th first tangled with German fliers while covering the beaches during the Allied invasion at Anzio on Jan. 27, 1944. Sixteen Warhawk pilots spotted 15 German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters dive-bombing Allied ships off Anzio. The black aviators attacked the Germans, who were flying superior airplanes, and shot down five without losing one of their own.
Custis flew 92 combat missions and is credited with one victory and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism.
The squadron’s success that day gave Custis a sense that he was part of something special, although it would be decades before the black aviators would receive wide acclaim for their combat in Europe.
“After our success at Anzio and Salerno … we had an inkling that perhaps we had made a real contribution,” Custis said during an interview in April 2000. “And then, of course, as the years went by, and you got older and you had a better perspective of history and so forth, we could realize that we had really done something from a historical standpoint.”
He later returned to Tuskegee as an advanced flight instructor, he was released from active military service as an Army Air Force Major, in 1946. He retired as the Chief Examiner, Tax Department for the State of Connecticut, after 30 years’ service in 1980. In 1995, he was a consultant for the HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen” and served on the Board of Directors at the New England Air Museum in Washington D.C. His life achievements were recognized by Central Connecticut State University with an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree in 2001.
The Tuskegee Airmen went on to earn more fame by escorting Allied bombers. German pilots were taking a heavy toll on the lumbering bombers, and fighter escort was crucial.
Despite their performance in combat, the black aviators still endured indignities at home and abroad. But it didn’t make them bitter.
“I like to think that most of us, as a result of all of our experiences, tried to really overcome some of those scars we had picked up over the years – some of the mental and social scars,” Custis said during an interview in 2002. “We tried to be good citizens in whatever city or town we thought we’d live our lives in.”
Accolades from his fellow Airmen and peers:
Connie Nappier of New Britain, who later went through the same pilot training Custis completed to become a Tuskegee Airman, remembered Custis as a beat cop in Hartford. Custis had joined the department in 1940, two years after earning a bachelor’s degree at Howard University.
“One day we missed Lem,” Nappier recalled Tuesday. After two or three days passed, he and many others in Hartford’s black community figured “the man found a way to get rid of Lem.”
They learned the truth months later when the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper that served black America, arrived. “There was Lem on the front page with the other four fellas, having earned his wings,” Nappier said.
“Lem was one of those who was determined that he was going to see it through and get his wings, not to pin bouquets on himself, but to prove we had the capabilities that any other human had,” Nappier said.
“We stood on the shoulders of that class,” said Roscoe C. Brown Jr., a Tuskegee airman and an administrator at City University of New York. “If he and the four others from that class had not been successful 63 years ago, the rest of us would never have been airmen.”
Lee A. Archer Jr., a retired lieutenant colonel and a Tuskegee Airman, said Custis served as a role model for many young black men who were in the service during World War II.
“He was a gentleman — well, as much of a gentleman as you could be as an upperclassman at Tuskegee,” Archer said with a laugh. “But for the first time in my life, there was someone I could emulate,” Archer said. “My goal was to be like him.”
“He paved the way for us, ” said Victor Terrelong, a Long Island resident who followed Custis at Tuskegee. “Even though it was still hard, the first class made it easier for all of us who came along later and wanted to fly.”
“They wanted the experiment with Lem and the others to fail,” added Clayton F. Lawrence, referring to the racially charged trial program that ended up producing the acclaimed air squadrons. “But Lem and the others proved to those who said we couldn’t do the job that we could,” said Lawrence, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Tuskegee alumnus and president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter.
“He loved his country, even when it didn’t treat him the way it should have,” said Mark Evans, whose father had worked with Custis. “He showed anyone who thought otherwise that it is the mettle of the man, not the color of his skin, that counts.”
Visit the Virtual Museum to see orders assigning the first aviation cadets to Tuskegee