BANGOR, Maine — James A. Sheppard knew when he entered Haaren Aviation Technical High School in New York City that a job as an airplane mechanic would not be waiting for him when he graduated in 1942.
“None of the airlines then would hire blacks, or, as they called us then — C-O-L-O-R-E-D,” Sheppard, 86, said Saturday. “I joined the Army Air Force hoping it would change. Eventually, it and the airlines did.”
The South Portland resident was a crew chief with what is now known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter group, and the only member living in Maine. He spoke Saturday at a Bangor hotel during the state convention of the Disabled American Veterans of Maine.
Sheppard’s high school was integrated but he was one of just a handful of African-Americans who attended. That experience, he said Saturday, did not prepare him as an 18-year-old for the Deep South and the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama where the 332nd Fighter Group was to train.
“One of the first things they did was sit us all down and tell us, ‘We’re not starting a civil rights movement here,’” Sheppard said. “We were told that if we were in town and a white woman came walking down the street, we were to cross over to the other side of the street, even if we were in uniform.”
Sheppard’s squadron, the 301st, first was assigned to North Africa. It then moved north to Sicily and, eventually, up to northern Italy by 1945. During that time, he worked on three different models of fighter planes. They had one thing in common, however; all their tails were painted red because the nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen was “Red Tails.”
After World War II, commercial airlines grew tremendously as more people began flying instead of taking trains on long-distance trips, he said.
“There was a shortage of civilian mechanics, but when I arrived to apply for a job, they all said the same thing — no colored mechanics — in spite of the war,” Sheppard said.
So he took written exams to become a police officer, firefighter and mailman.
“I went with the post office, hoping thing would change,” he said. “I was worried though, because my license [as an airplane mechanic] expired after two years. If that happened, I’d have had to go back to school for six months for a refresher course.”
That never happened, and from mid-1947 until 1957, Sheppard worked as an aviation maintenance technician at various airlines in New York City. In 1957, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. He retired 30 years later as the supervisory aviation safety inspector in the Flight Standards District Office, located in Portland.
Sheppard said that although he’s the only member of the Tuskegee Airmen now living in Maine, native Mainer Eugene Sullivan was a member of his squadron. He now lives in the Boston area, and Sheppard said the two see each other at reunions.
In October 2005, Sheppard was a member of a special five-man group from the original Tuskegee Airmen to visit Iraq. The men were guests of the 332nd Expeditionary Wing.
Sheppard said these days he often speaks to young people and veterans groups about his experiences. He also attends reunions of the airmen.
He has seen a lot of change since his World War II days, but still he was surprised to find out when he visited Iraq that his armed escorts were women.