John Edward Allen, a Tuskegee Airman who received a Congressional Gold Medal for his service, died Tuesday of multiple myeloma. He turned 84 on July 24.
Allen, who lived in Rio Rancho with his wife at the time of his death, entered the military in 1945 and retired in 1973, serving for part of that time as one of about 1,000 airmen who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., between 1942 and 1946.
Sometimes referred to as Red Tails because of the red paint on the tails of their planes, the now-celebrated airmen were involved in an Army Air Corps program to train African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft.
The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air, according to Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., which aggregates information pertaining to the group's history and holds annual conventions.
Allen was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces right out of high school in Live Oak, Fla., in 1945. He was only 17, but no one asked his age, he recalled in an interview last November.
Allen also reflected on his career in handling and disposing bombs and bullets with the 332nd Fighter Wing, saying some of the weapons he was supposed to detonate included Minuteman I and Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The airmen shot down 111 German planes and disabled 150 German aircraft. Allen received the Air Force Commendation Medal for assisting in de-arming two dozen 500-pound bombs that were dropped from the wing of a B-52 being readied for a mission in Vietnam.
He served 27 years enlisted in the U.S. military, then lived for a period in Guam. Afterward, given several choices of Air Force bases at which to pursue a civilian career, he and his wife, Willie E. Allen, selected Kirtland in Albuquerque because they liked the weather. Allen worked another 27 years as a civilian employee before retiring from the Weapons Safety Division at Kirtland Air Force Base in 2000.
In an interview in her Rio Rancho home on Wednesday, Allen's wife said she didn't know he had been a Red Tail until after they got married.
After all, he had a lot of other things going on, she noted. A member of First Baptist Church of Rio Rancho and an avid reader who was thinking about writing a memoir, he loved to garden and to barbecue sides of beef and half-pigs underground.
He also had a cache of jokes — both clean and salty — as well as stories from his travels and wartime experiences. "Anybody knew him knew, he could tell a war story. He had a whole lot," she said.
The Tuskegee Airmen's service spurred desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, a legacy that followed Allen to New Mexico.
"He's an icon in the African-American community," said Harold Bailey, president of the Albuquerque chapter of the NAACP, who recalls leading workshops with Allen for a summer youth aviation camp. "He's a role model," he said, adding that while he was an airman, "he played a significant role, because during that time, they had separate units. He had to face discrimination and racial bias."
In 2000, Allen made an effort to keep the airmen's legacy alive locally, as a founding member of a local General Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, which, still in existence, was open not only to former airmen but anyone who wanted to join.
"He was quite popular; a lot of people would request that he speak," said Bernice Reed, a longtime member and one-time interim president of the chapter. "He was in high demand he would address the group, and everywhere he went, he'd have all his books about the Tuskegee Airmen, and his paraphernalia."
In 2007, Allen received the Congressional Gold Medal, along with 300 other airmen who were still alive.
Funeral services for Allen are pending for later this month at the African American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque.