LAURINBURG — At age 89, James E. Jones is not your average senior. He drives and remains active in his Masonic lodge, serving as treasurer. He is also a pastor, who still takes time to speak to youth groups, churches and other organizations throughout the year.
But if you take away those things, Jones is still not your average Joe.
Jones is a part of history as one of less than 300 living members of the Tuskegee Airmen crew. He was a maintenance specialist with the first U.S. black pilot outfit during World War II.
Jones was in Laurinburg Wednesday for the first day of the Rise Above Traveling exhibit set up at The Main Table restaurant parking lot. The exhibit tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Officials with the African American Cultural Society, the group that organized the exhibit, wanted to share the inspiring story of the airmen and their crew and the obstacles the trailblazers had to overcome to serve their country.
Jones, who took part in Wednesday’s exhibit’s opening ceremonies along with Mayor Matthew Block and other local officials, said it was his first time viewing the exhibit put together by the CAF Red Tail Squadron.
“What we had to endure was very great and grave,” said Jones, who lives in Lumberton. “The indignities that we had to endure and face and was confronted with is beyond human thought. But we endured it. Whether or not they’ve got authentic information or just information for display, I don’t know.”
He remembers the segregation the black servicemen went through, not being able to use the same mess halls, bathrooms or officers’ clubs. The cadets were even questioned by enemy airmen why they were willing to risk their lives for a country that treated them as second-class citizens.
Originally drafted in the Army, Jones said he was given the opportunity to re-enlist in another branch of military and he chose the Air Force.
Jones said despite the mistreatment and discrimination, America was home.
“We did lose some pilots, but we loss less pilots than any other fighter squad in the United States Air Force,” Jones said.
Jones received a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 2012.
“What you see is what you get,” said Jones’ longtime friend, J.W. Jacobs. “He may not tell you what you want to hear but he will tell you what I truly believed God has told him to tell you. He is genuine. He told me don’t ever say the word try again, because when you say try, you are setting yourself up for failure.”
The Tuskegee exhibit will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., until Saturday. Tickets are $7.50.
Visitors will be able to watch a 30-minute movie about the Tuskegee Airmen in a climate controlled mobile trailer.
The P-51C Mustang aircraft is not a part of the exhibit this time. It is being repaired after sustaining damage in February.
Maria D. Grandy can be reached at 910-506-3171.