Tuskegee Airman recalls flying the skies
At 93, Charles Cross of Springfield has been around the block a few times.
Make that many, many times.
The nonagenarian paid a visit recently to teens in Springfield Housing Authority’s Robinson Gardens Youth Group, telling stories of his days growing up during the Great Depression in St. Louis, Missouri, leaving college to join the U.S. Air Force, training for the Tuskegee Airmen, when he defiantly stood up to Jim Crow laws, and landing in Springfield, where he lives to this day with his wife.
“I’ve lived a good long time, and I don’t have any secrets to that,” he said. “I’ve always eaten good, healthy food, and I stay away from medications.”
He shared with the teens a few surprises, including that he just stopped flying his own airplane last year, and that he believed he was going to die on the day in 19xx when he defied an order by a bus driver in Biloxi, Miss., to sit in the back of the bus because he was black. Several fellow African-American airmen encircled him in protection, likely saving him.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well I am going to die anyway once I get to Germany, I might as well save the government the money of training me and die today.’ I never thought I’d get off that bus alive,” he said.
Cross was born on Dec. 14, 1923, four months after Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th president of the United States. Women had been voting for just three years. King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was opened that year in Egypt, and the original Yankee Stadium saw its first baseball game in New York. That same year, insulin was introduced in Canada as a treatment for diabetes.
Cross admits he’s seen a lot, done a lot, and always stood up for his principles to do what’s right. That philosophy, in fact, is what inspired him after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 to drop out of college – he never did finish – and join the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American military pilots.
“I was 19 years old. I had read about the Tuskegee Airmen, and that’s how I wanted to serve,” he said. The military pilots escorted bombers to Germany. While Cross became an ace pilot, he did not end up in active service because by the time he was fully trained, he was not needed.
He remained in the Air Force, serving as an interpreter for German prisoners at one point – he had studied German in college and became fluent. An assignment at Westover Air Force Base brought him to this area in 1945, and he settled in Springfield. He was married by then.
Cross worked at the former Uniroyal Tire Co. in a variety of positions for 33 years, retiring in 1979 at age 55. He told the teens that he’s now been retired 38 years, longer than he worked.
For many years, he was a co-owner of a series of small airplanes that were housed at the Westfield-Barnes Airport. He flew two or three times a week, weather permitting, and even gave free rides to children who came to the airport, calling that ‘A Day in Search of a Cloud.’
He said he was happy to share his life’s memories, noting, “I’ve seen a lot of life.” His look back had some good, and some bad.
Cross remembers waiting in line for food during the Great Depression, an experience that inspired him. “It was hard. I made up by mind then that I would never be without. I’d work for what I needed.”
He gave each member of the Youth Group a penny, asking them how much they would have in a year if they doubled it every week. Then, he told them to do just that, and to keep doing it.
Members of the Youth Group listened attentively as Cross highlighted his long life.
“He’s got so many stories,” said 15-year-old Christopher Ortiz, who is president of the Youth Group. “He’s lived a long time and done so much.”
“I liked the aspect of how he stood up for himself on that bus,” he said.
Thirteen-year-old Sulie Hurtas said the visit made her stop and think about life.
“He’s so interesting. He can look way back into the past and see that even if things don’t work out like you planned, you can still do a lot of good things in this world,” she said.
Cross was invited to visit the teens by SHA Youth Engagement Coordinator Jimmie Mitchell, who remembers going to school with one of Cross’ children.
“I just love his story, and I love it that the kids and I got to meet a Tuskegee Airman,” said Mitchell. “The kids will be talking about this for a long time to come.”
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