Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

We’d like to share the story of one of the true heroes we encountered in the Legacy Project. TUSKEGEE-AIRMENWe heard many accounts of overcoming adversity and discrimination, but no interviewee was more inspiring than Hiram Mann (pictured here in World War II). Hiram had to fight to find the work he loved, overcoming racial prejudice along the way. The struggle and the rewards of his 90 years were encapsulated in his first words in our interview: “I was one of the original legendary Tuskegee Airmen.”

In the early 1940s the military was almost completely segregated and the Air Force did not even allow Black people to enlist. But what if, as a young Black man, this was your chosen career, indeed your life’s mission?

Hiram’s experiences as part of this unique group allowed him to achieve his childhood dream, and so shaped his lessons for work and career.

Back when I wanted to get into the military, before America got into the fighting in WWII, I wanted to fly an airplane. I had never been in an airplane in my life, though we’d seen them fly over. Well, I was a Depression-era child and pennies were very, very, tight to come by, but I would save my pennies in a wooden box and go to the hobby shop and try to make model airplanes, because I wanted to fly so badly.

Sometime in early 1941, I wanted to know about getting flying instructions to fight for my country. The letter of rejection that I received said point-blank, no easy words to smooth it over, that there were no facilities to train “Negroes” to fly in any branch of the American military service. That ticked me off. I balled the letter up and threw it away. There were Blacks like me that wanted to fly. All over the United States there were others in similar situations. I went back to my job being a bellhop in Cleveland, Ohio.

I applied again and I was very lucky. I passed and I continued to pass all of the examinations that I was given and I was in the 27th class that graduated.

Hiram thus refused to give up despite setbacks and his own self-doubt that emerged from being raised in a segregated society. He needed a mix of courage, drive, patience, and forbearance to succeed in the 1940s military, where Black soldiers were unusual and Black officers a rare curiosity. Nevertheless, he achieved his dream of fighting for his country, putting his life at risk in the war in Europe:

I was in combat. I’m a combat survivor. One of the questions a young person asked me was, “Were you afraid?” And I said, “Yes, I was afraid! When you let somebody get behind you who’s shooting at you and they’re trying to kill you and you know they are trying to kill you, you’d be afraid too if you had any sense.” So I will not lie. I told him, “Yes I was afraid.” I could see the bullets coming.

Although others might have given up, Hiram refused to become discouraged by the racial environment in the Air Force. Instead, he used the military experience, despite its difficulties, to create a career path that would have been almost unimaginable to him as a child. He bacame one of the pioneers of desegregation in the military, sought after in his ninth decade as a speaker, and a living symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity.

In the Legacy Project, Hiram shared some of his lessons for living – all good advice for young people today:

On tolerance:

I accept my fellow man as an individual. I try not to prejudge. I try to enter, whatever the situation may be, to get going to it with an open mind. That’s the way I approach most areas that I get into. Tolerate the other person..Tolerance – that goes a long way

On perseverance:

My mother had her basic teachings, she would not let me look down. She would tell me: “Hold your head up. No matter what, hold your head up.” And, my mother could not stand when I would say that I don’t have the background to do so and so and so. “What do you mean you don’t have the background?” She couldn’t stand that word “background.”

On creating a legacy:

My legacy—I don’t know just what it’s going to be. I haven’t written it yet. But I do hope that I’ve contributed something to mankind, individually as well as collectively. I know that the Black pilots were instrumental in doing away with segregation in the United States. We broke the ice. We were a cause for eliminating segregation because of our combat record. We, the 332nd fighter group that later was re-designated as the Tuskegee Airmen, became the most requested unit to fly escort duty for the bombers because of the protection we gave them. There’s my part in that. Nothing I did individually, but my contribution to that will be part of my legacy. I’m very proud of the life I’ve lived. I’m proud of having been a Black pilot and of my contribution to society.

To learn more, here’s a video of Hiram sharing his life lessons to young people.

How to Survive a Crisis: Advice from the Wisest Americans

Who better to tell us how to survive and thrive in a crisis than elders who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and even the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic? It’s a pleasure to share these insights from the Cornell Chronicle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has us asking difficult questions: How will we survive this? What are we willing to sacrifice? What comes next?

In a moment that feels unprecedented, we can learn from the hard-won wisdom of a generation that weathered the most devastating events of the 20th century and lived to tell the tale.

Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development, began a 10-year project interviewing older Americans in 2003, his research described in his 2012 book, “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.”

Pillemer is also professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology. His major research interests include human development, with a special emphasis on family and social relationships in middle age and beyond.

For his research, Pillemer started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. The average age of his interviewees was 77; the oldest was 108. Approximately 1,000 of them outlasted the Great Depression, 1,200 endured World War II and 60 survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?

Take the long view

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the nation, the very longevity of the oldest Americans is proof this crisis will end and rebuilding will begin. The elders can provide us with the long view, confirming in a literal sense that “this, too, shall pass.”

“I met Holocaust survivors, refugees from many of the early 20th century’s other major conflicts, and people who lost everything in the Depression,” Pillemer said. “By the time I sat with them 40, 50, 60, or 70 years later, they had built comfortable, often successful and fulfilling lives. Their message was extraordinarily clear: Crises occur, societies change and, with resilience, we recover and move on.”

Focusing on what your future can be a decade or more from now can provide an antidote to worry, the elders advise. This lesson is also a reminder: Present actions are the future stories of how we survived. What story do we want to tell?

Be generous

If you want to help yourself, the elders said, help others. Pillemer noted that their own poor families helped out even poorer ones during the Great Depression. They remember World War II as a time when communities came together and everyone joined hands and hearts to support one another at home.

“Generously assisting other people to the extent that we can is a major way people are able to feel a sense of control,” Pillemer said. “Whether that was helping other people during the Great Depression or assisting the war effort during WWII. Generously helping others is a very good, self-interested strategy.”

Don’t worry – prepare instead

The oldest Americans have experience worrying about an event, going through the event and dealing with the fallout. According to Pillemer, they overwhelmingly agree: At best, worrying wastes time; at worst, it increases your suffering.

“They found that the best antidote to gnawing worries was taking action,” Pillemer said. “Preparation for the worst doesn’t just make sense for your protection; it also makes you feel empowered. From their experience of crisis, they advise that conscious, rational planning greatly reduces free-floating worry.”

Enjoy small daily pleasures

The last lesson Pillemer shared was the importance of experiencing joy and savoring small daily pleasures. When people seek happiness, they often think about “big-ticket” items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. The elders tell us that a positive attitude in a crisis depends on thinking small.

“A morning cup of coffee … a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” he said. “Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.”

Pillemer’s research highlights the wisdom of a disappearing generation, and the inestimable value of the stories and knowledge of the elders among us. And so, with no small amount of urgency, one final lesson taken from Pillemer’s lead: Ask your elders your questions while you can, and find comfort in their resilience.

Written by E.C. Barrett who is a freelance writer, for the Cornell Chronicle.

Honesty and Trust: A WW II Veteran’s Lesson for Living

Like many others, we at the Legacy Project have been following the D-Day commemorations. In my book 30 Lessons for Living, I was privileged to interview many members of the War and Crisis Generation, capturing their wisdom before they left us (only a few WW II veterans are still alive).

If there is one lesson for a good life that nearly all of  the Legacy Project elders agree on, it’s  honesty. This may be worded in different ways: being truthful, being a person of trust, or having integrity. But it shines above all others in the advice elders give about core values.

And this isn’t just some hollow platitude. The elders believe that honesty is not a lofty ideal; rather, it’s a daily practice that is highly beneficial for every individual.

Max, age 95, passionately summed up this lesson and how he learned it:

 My father died when I was 12, and my mother appointed me head of the household. After my freshman year in college (1942-43), I was drafted into the Army. In World War II, I was a combat medic attached to infantry in the 95th Infantry Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. In December of 1944, I was wounded by a German machine gunner while I was trying to rescue a fallen comrade. Gas gangrene cost me my left arm for which I have worn a prosthesis ever since. After honorable discharge, rank of PFC, I completed my undergraduate education in biology and then got a Master’s Degree. My career, influenced by the War, was as a high school teacher of biology and English.

As a fatherless boy I soon learned to be skeptical of authority, institutional and religious. However, I realized intensely – and still do – that trust is the most valuable bond that keeps us civil and loving. Cheating and lying, of every kind—in school work, business, friendships, sex, marriage, parenthood, social contracts, just as examples—weaken that bond.

Just think of what a dissolving marriage does to the sense of trust children have in their parents! Just think of what a dreadful toll the failure of trust in our current federal administration is taking on us as a people and on our international relations! Just think of what casual sex has done to the bonds of trust and love! Trust keeps us together in marriage, as families, as social groups, in business negotiations, as a nation. Betray that for personal gain or pleasure and you lose more than your integrity; you weaken the fabric of society.

Learning from World War II Veterans

Many older people who served in World War II came from small, homogeneous communities. They were then suddenly thrown together with  people all over the country. Once in the service, they experienced danger and hardship that is difficult to imagine. Although these experiences are shared by service men and women today, in the elders’ generation, millions of men experienced combat, shaping their worldviews. They were some of the most inspiring interviewees in 30 Lessons for Living.

We have come to a point in time, however, where those who participated in World War II generation will soon be gone. Take a look at this chart:

In five years, only a few hundred thousand of those who risked their lives so bravely will be left with us. For this reason, I believe we need to actively engage the WWII veterans now, asking them for the lessons they learned from their experiences.

Here’s an example from the Legacy Project. Larry, 89, describes his lessons for getting along with others, gained from his service in WW II:

When I went into the service, I was a young boy from Vermont.  A little hick town. And I lived on the right side of the tracks, okay?  My whole family was well-known throughout town, well-respected and everything.  I got into the Navy and I was just another punk.  And I learned how to get along with people.  And when I got out of the service, people would say to me, “Oh, boy am I glad I’m out of the service.” And I said, “I’ll tell you something:  I learned how to get along with people for one thing.”  That was the biggest lesson that has helped me all through life. Because you’re cramped in and everything like that.  Living aboard ship.  And you’ve got to get along with people, because you have no choice.  And these are people that you never saw before. 

I learned to accept mankind until they prove me wrong.  I don’t care who you are, what you are, how you are, you’re fine with me until you prove the opposite.  I get along with everybody, and that – I think the service had something to do with that. That’s what you need at work: to be sociable and to get along with the people you are working with.

Zach Danko, 87, also pointed to WW II as broadening his understanding of others:

I served in World War II. You traveled the world and you bumped into people that were quite different. I was in the Pacific, so I was talking to natives in New Guinea. When I was younger, I would have shied away from them. You couldn’t speak the language, number one. Everything was sort of hand movement – you try to describe what you’re trying to say. But they were the most beautiful people in the world, what they did for us. So you look back at that, and it teaches you things. It’s a big world.

So let’s make sure we learn all we can from our WW II veterans – before we lose the chance!

Lessons from Our Veterans

I received this message from June Hussey:

Please view the life lessons learned in service to our country posted by veterans living at Watermark communities coast to coast. One of the greatest joys of working with older Americans every day is hearing their amazing stories and learning important lessons about life and history through their personal experiences. Most older Americans eagerly share their wisdom. All you have to do is ask, as the Legacy Project is doing here. The essay posted by Carleton Jones, Jr. is especially poignant and should be required reading of every American. Find it at http://www.watermarkcommunities/veteransday. . Thanks for spearheading the Legacy Project.

Take a look at this page, with pictures and life lessons from people who have served their country. They are remarkable and inspiring!