Carl Johnson, left, served as a Tuskegee Airman. (Courtesy of Carl Johnson)

He wasn’t sure he would graduate.

When cadet Carl Johnson returned to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama after a two-week bout of appendicitis, the 12 black airmen of his class had already earned their wings from the Army.

“I was positive they were going to eliminate me,” said Johnson, who is now 90 and lives in Northern Virginia. Dozens of other students in the final class had already washed out of the program, the premier training ground for African American pilots, navigators and bombardiers in the segregated military of the 1940s. “I had a weekend pass for Atlanta. When I came back, they said they were looking for me. The general who was head of the command had been there in Tuskegee. They told them about this last cadet they had.”

“I was the last cadet at Tuskegee. I was the last Tuskegee Airman to graduate.”

The year was 1946, which made him too late to serve in World War II. But he still joined a legendary squadron of highly skilled and disciplined fighters who flew more than 1,000 missions in Europe and North Africa amid open skepticism of white officers. Dozens died protecting bombers from enemy fire.

The bomber squadrons they escorted called the Tuskegee Airmen “red-tail angels” for the red-painted tails on their airplanes. The Germans, he said, called them “black bird men.”

One of their planes, the Spirit of Tuskegee, is on display at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.

But it would take years for the black pilots to be recognized as war heroes. And when they returned home, they had to fight another battle against segregation and bigotry.

For Johnson, who served in Korea and Vietnam, that battle began when he arrived at a train station in Fort Worth with his orders to report to Tuskegee. He was 18 years old.

The Army had issued Johnson and 14 other black cadets train tickets for sleeping cars, known as Pullmans, for the 24-hour trip from Texas to Alabama.

“The station master told us: ‘No, you don’t get a Pullman. You have to go in coach,’ ” Johnson recalled. “One of my classmates, a fellow a little older, he said, ‘No, we are not getting on the train until we get a Pullman.’ ”

“But they told us, ‘You get on the train or you are going to go to jail.’ We ended up in coach.”

Johnson and his fellow cadets were given seats behind the engine. The Army had also issued meal tickets, but the black cadets were denied use of the dining car. Riding hours on the train with no food, they were ravenous.

“We got to New Orleans, and the train stopped for a little while,” Johnson recalled, “and one of the fellows in our group — originally from New Orleans — he was able to get us some food and got back on the train.”

They arrived in the middle of the night at the station outside Tuskegee.

“It was a little station, with one side for blacks and one side for whites. The training officer who came to pick us up looked at us and said, ‘You are a sorry bunch of misters.’ And we were sorry-looking because we had sat behind the engine all the way from Fort Worth. The smoke from the train came in the windows. We didn’t have air conditioning in those days. It was a pretty long train ride.”

At Moton Field, which had been built between 1940 and 1942, the Army conducted its “experiment” to see whether “Negroes could be trained to fly in war.”

The Army Air Corps sent in uniforms, books and parachutes, Johnson said. The Tuskegee Institute, the historically black university founded by Booker T. Washington, was under contract to provide rooms, food, hangars and flight instructors.

Johnson remembers the base was segregated and so was the town. “I don’t think I ever went in the town of Tuskegee more than once or twice,” Johnson said.

Johnson was a young cadet as the airmen who’d fought overseas returned.

“Now they are recognized as heroes,” Johnson said. “The Tuskegee combat returnees never even mentioned they had shot aircraft. I never heard them do any bragging at all, not one bit. I never learned about what they had done until much later. I knew they were good pilots because I flew with them.

“I was a pretty good pilot myself,” he added.

Carl Johnson, 90, is reflected in a display of his military medals, which hang in a frame at his home in Ashburn, Va. He flew combat missions in Korea and Vietnam during 31 years as an aviator. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Johnson spoke about his military service at the dining-room table of his home in Ashburn, Va., about 50 minutes west of Washington. His wife, Nancy Johnson, 87, was in the kitchen doing a newspaper crossword puzzle. They have a son, 57, and a daughter, 54.

Tall and reserved, Johnson pulled out an album, flipping through pages that display photos of him in his Tuskegee flight helmet, goggles and flight jacket. Another shows Johnson standing with a group of cadets, a student officer and a flight instructor in front of a plane. He has carefully saved his important papers, including an Army Air Forces Training Command certificate showing that he completed the pilot course in October 1946.

He is a quiet, accomplished man who still drives and helps take care of his wife.

Johnson was born in Bellaire, Ohio, where he grew up right across the river from Wheeling, W.Va. His high school was integrated and so was the campus at Ohio State, which he attended until he was drafted. He wanted to be a pilot, even in a military that viewed blacks as inferior warriors. And he began training at Tuskegee just as World War II was ending and the black aviation unit was about to be disbanded.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman made history by ordering the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. But much was left unchanged.

“A lot of the states ignored that,” Johnson remembered.

At a base in Enid, Okla., Johnson shared a room with a supply sergeant because there was no place for a black pilot to live.

He eventually joined the Ohio National Guard. “They had one black unit. They didn’t have any blacks anywhere else in the division except in our battalion. It was all black. The commanding officer was black.”

Johnson made a career out of being an Army aviator. Over the next 31 years, he flew in the Korean War and commanded an aviation battalion consisting of seven companies in Vietnam.

He received a Distinguished Flying Cross and 10 Air Medals, which he keeps pinned in neat rows in a golden frame in his home office.

“I got the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in Vietnam. We had units on the ground who were being attacked,” Johnson said. “I was called for artillery fire. We were flying over where everything was taking place. I could see tracers coming around.”

Then he stops. That is as animated as he gets about risking his life.

He still stays in touch with a few Tuskegee Airmen. But many have died.

Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell pays tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen in the Capitol Rotunda, where they were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 for their military service. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

In 2007, Johnson and other Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Johnson was among 300 black aviators, most of them in their 8os, who gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to receive recognition for their service.

“You showed America that there was nothing a black person couldn’t do,” said former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general who served as the country’s first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

President George W. Bush acknowledged the terrible racism that all the Tuskegee Airmen had endured.

“For all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. . . . I salute you for your service to the United States of America,” Bush told them.

The commander in chief saluted them. And Johnson and the other aviators got to their feet and saluted back.

About this series

This story is part of an occasional series on people connected to the figures or events featured in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.