Class Number: 42-F-SE
Graduation Date: 7/3/1942
Rank Held at Tuskegee: 2nd Lt.
Serial Number: 0789641
Hometown: Sumter, South Carolina
May 23, 1921 – February 9, 1984
Ashley graduated from Morris College High School and attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia where he learned how to fly with the Civil Air Patrol. He was a member of the first class of the Tuskegee Institute class 42-C, with 12 cadets, graduating July 3, 1942. Ashley was the first to fly solo, to receive his flying wings and to earn his second Lieutenant bars.
Ashley served for 14 months in North Africa, Sicily and in North Africa, Sicily and France, flying 77 combat missions and officially recording two downed enemy aircraft. He almost certainly downed a third aircraft for which he was not credited according to material provided by Shaw Air Force Base.
On June 9, 1943 six pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron became the first Tuskegee Airmen pilots to engage in aerial combat. Led by Lt. Charles Dryden, Lt. Willie Ashley, Sidney P. Brooks, Lee Rayford, Leon Roberts and Spann Watson, exchanged fire with German fighter planes, with no losses to either side. The Italian garrison on Pantelleria surrendered on June 11, 1943, in large part due to the powerful air attacks it had been subjected to. The 99th Fighter Squadron was a key part of the air assault.
Lt. Willie Ashley (left) with members of his squadron in 1944
He returned home and continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Ashley graduated from University of Omaha and later earned a master’s degree in parasitology from Catholic University and a doctorate in philosophy. He held positions in U.S. government agencies, was a professor at Howard University, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Ashley retired with the rank of Lt Col.
A road on Shaw Air Force Base was named for two Sumter natives who flew with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. The road, now officially “Ashley-Bowman Boulevard,” begins at the Sumter Gate on U.S. 378 and St. Paul’s Church Road and continues on the base to Dryden Way. The road was named in memory of Lt. Col. Willie Ashley and 1st Sgt. Leroy Bowman, who both grew up in Sumter and later flew in World War II.
Retired Lt. Gen. George Bowman, left, son of Tuskegee Airman Leroy Bowman, and Shaw Air Force Base Commander Col. Stephen Jost, center, unveils a display about Leroy Bowman and Willie Ashley, two Tuskegee Airmen who are being honored at a street naming ceremony on Shaw Air Force Base, along with other dignitaries and family members.
Thank you to Alfred Reeves for researching and submitting this profile!