Lives: Herven Exum, Tuskegee Airman

December 20, 2013

Herven Percy Exum served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. (Courtesy of family)

At nights in the bed he shared with four brothers, sleeping head to foot, and tired from days tending his family’s fields of tobacco or picking cotton by the bushel, Herven Percy Exum dreamed of life in the skies. But for a young black man in rural North Carolina, ambitions of winging through the air were as lofty as the clouds themselves.

That one day he would climb over racial barriers to sit in the cockpit of a 2,500-horsepower fighter plane as a pilot during World War II proved to be his greatest achievement.

A Tuskegee airman, Exum was among a now-dwindling generation of African American men who made history with their prowess in flight. Almost 1,000 black men trained to be pilots through the Tuskegee program during World War II. Exum, who died Aug. 18 at age 91 at the Washington Veterans Affairs Medical Center, was one of the last living. According to estimates from Tuskegee veterans groups, fewer than 100 remain.

On Nov. 6, 1921, Exum was the fifth of 10 children born to John E. and Cora Artis Exum at the family homestead near Eureka, N.C., where his ancestors had lived off the land as farmers since the late 1800s. His great-grandfather was an immigrant from the Bahamas whose wife was Cherokee. As a youth, Exum tilled fields with a mule-pulled plow and fetched water from a well.

“We raised our own food, mostly,” said his brother and only surviving immediate relative, Eurmal DuBois Exum. “Chickens. Hogs. Black-eyed peas. Sweet potatoes.”

After high school, Herven Exum left home and trained in his uncle’s funeral home to become a mortician.

When the war began, Exum joined the Army and qualified for special service: the Tuskegee program. Prejudice held at the time that black men would never be capable of piloting sophisticated aircraft. Exum, and the hundreds like him who completed the arduous training, demonstrated otherwise.

Tuskegee veteran Gamaliel Collins, 93, remembers Exum and the flight training they endured together.

Collins said their instructors could be daring to the point of devious as they prepared trainees for the stress of combat.

“I went down there, and I was afraid to fly,” Collins said. Then came his first solo flight. “I was doing pretty good, then my trainer took his parachute and jumped out of the plane and said, ‘You’re on your own.’ And I yelled back, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ ”

Recalling his choice to fly planes during the war, Exum told his family: “I was not married and had no children, therefore I had nothing to lose and took chances.”

According to his family, Exum first flew a P-47 Thunderbolt, a single-engine fighter plane. Exum later trained to fly twin-engine aircraft, likely the B-25 bomber, said Brian Smith, a historian with the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum.

It’s unclear if Exum saw combat during World War II. His family said he took part in escort missions accompanying American bomber planes on sorties over Europe. Historical records of Exum’s service indicate only that he trained on multi-engine planes and graduated from Tuskegee as a flight officer on Oct. 16, 1944. No Tuskegee bombers were deployed in World War II.

Exum was proud of his service but did not often talk about his experiences with his family. Much of his war record remains a mystery, his brother said.

“You don’t want to think about what you saw,” said Eurmal Exum, who served during the Korean War. “You got to keep a lot of things to yourself.”

His family said Exum later flew Air Force jets on combat missions in the Korean War. In the late 1950s, he performed in air shows as H.P. “Hot Pilot” Exum. During Vietnam, he flew injured troops to hospitals in Japan and Guam as a contractor.

When he later moved to the District, Exum drove cabs and worked as an air traffic controller. For a time, he worked as a commercial airline pilot in Canada.

A lifelong bachelor, Exum had no children.

“He was a playboy for life,” his nephew Larnell Exum said. “He always had a beautiful woman on his arm.”

Recalling his choice to fly planes during the war, Exum told his family: “I was not married and had no children, therefore I had nothing to lose and took chances.”

Exum was buried at Quantico National Cemetery wearing a red blazer in honor of his Tuskegee service.

Collins, reached by phone at his Los Angeles home, said he was sad to hear his fellow airman had died.

“Most of the people that I know about, they’re dead,” Collins said. “But I’m accustomed to that. That’s all I hear. There’s just a few of us left.”

T. Rees Shapiro is a Washington Post staff writer.

For more in the Lives issue, read about:

- Realtor and single mother Rita Devine

- Rick Dreyfuss, drummer of Half Japanese

- Hedy Marque, long-distance runner through her 80s

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit  WP Magazine.

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T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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