Kendall native receives Congressional Gold Medal for service as Tuskegee Airman

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 November 2016 at 8:33 pm
Photo courtesy of Helen Unterborn: Wallace Higgins, a former Kendall resident, shared his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman during a talk with the Kendall Lions Club. This photo is from June 2015.

Photo courtesy of Helen Unterborn: Wallace Higgins, a former Kendall resident, shared his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman during a talk with the Kendall Lions Club. This photo is from June 2015.

GENESEO – Wallace Higgins, a Kendall native, was one of five Tuskegee Airmen from Western New York honored today with a Congressional Gold Medal.

The medals were presented during a Veterans Day ceremony at the National Warplane Museum.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by the United States Congress. The medals were presented about 70 years after the Airmen completed their historic World War II mission.

“At a time in our history where African-Americans faced tremendous prejudice, the Tuskegee Airmen remained true to their convictions and answered the call of duty, serving our nation honorably,” said Congressman Chris Collins, who presented the medals. “These brave men undoubtedly laid the foundation for change, so future generations can serve in our armed forces, no matter their race or ethnicity. It was a true honor to join these men and their families on Veterans Day to recognize their service and the service of all of our veterans.”

Higgins grew up in Kendall. Born on November 11, 1925 on a small farm in Kendall, a son of Alice and Daniel Higgins.

During a presentation to the Kendall Lions Club last year, he talked about encountering racial segregation and discrimination for the first time after entering the service and training in Pre-Flight at the Tuskegee Institute. He also discussed his post-war education at NYS College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He went on to become an Associate Professor at Alfred, retiring in 1985.

Higgins, who turned 91 today, has been a member of Alfred Lions Club for 50 years and spent decades in community service. In May last year he was inducted into the Veterans Hall of Fame in Albany.

As soon as he turned 18 years old, Higgins enlisted in the US Army Air Corps. Having already been attending Civil Air Patrol classes in Rochester during his senior year of high school, he already had interest in pursuing aviation.

After initially reporting to Fort Dix, New Jersey, Higgins was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training and aptitude testing. As a result of his skin color and proficiencies, Wally was selected to be part of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment in Alabama, where he trained in Pre-Flight and Primary Flight training, including solo runs in the P-17 Stearman.

Following 11 months at Tuskegee, a downturn in the war in Europe resulted in less pilot training and Higgins was transferred to the 1909th Engineers Aviation Battalion. A sergeant in charge of an all-black, 30-man platoon, Mr. Higgins served in Saipan and Okinawa building roads, airfields and ammunition storage buildings.

On March 17, 1947 “Wally” was Honorably Discharged as a Staff Sergeant with Squadron F, 3505th Army Air Force. For his service, Higgins earned the WW-II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, and New York State Medal for Merit. He was also recently presented with a Congressional Gold Medal due to his Civil Air Patrol involvement during the war.

Upon returning from the war, Higgins was accepted to the College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramic design in 1952. While a student there, he met and married Norma Miller about 65 years ago and never left Alfred. They raised four children.

In 2015, Higgins was recognized by Congressman Tom Reed with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his service. When Wallace heard that his fellow Airmen were identified, he wanted to attend this program today to participate in the Veterans Day ceremony.

Other Tuskegee Airmen honored today include Herbert Thorpe, a Brooklyn native, who earned B-25 Pilot’s Wings in October 1945 at Tuskegee. He was one the first black pilots in United States history.

The families of three other Tuskegee Airmen accepted the medals on behalf of the late Richard Thorpe who died in 1945 (His brother Herbert Thorpe accepted the medal on his behalf today), Robert M. Johnson (killed in action on Dec. 5, 1944) and Leland H. Pennington of Rochester who died on April 21, 1945 on a flight mission.

“We are excited to be a part of this significant event, especially on Veterans Day,” said Austin Wadsworth, President of the National Warplane Museum. “Honoring these Tuskegee Airmen today is just one of the ways we are able to continue our mission—to recognize all United States military personnel for their selfless service and sacrifice. I’d also like to thank Congressman Collins for joining us today to present these well-deserved medals to the Airmen and their families.”

Return to top