John “Jack” Lyle, who was one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, passed away Saturday from prostate cancer-related issues. He was 98 years old, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Lyle was a decorated World War II hero; he was awarded the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in 2007.
As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, the Tuskegee Airmen broke ground as the first Black group of airmen in U.S. military history. They got their name from their training ground, Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, and were noted for their courage and efficiency.
Lyle’s wife, Eunice Jackson-Lyle, remembered the airman's desire to enlist, saying he hoped to shift the paradigm of early 20th century Black life.
“That was the time when society felt that people of color didn't know how to do anything,” said Jackson-Lyle of the social climate of the 1940s. “There was discrimination in the military, but he still signed up for it because he knew who he was and what he could do.”
As Lyle told Jet magazine in 2012, he proved his mettle in the European theater.
"We flew 500 feet above the bombers to keep enemy fighters from hitting our guys," Lyle said. "I loved flying, being up in the clouds, the scenery. I flew 26 combat missions, from southern Italy to Austria and southern Germany, over the Austrian Alps."
Like many other Black troops, Lyle faced discrimination when he returned home from the war. Although he'd had a classical education and had experience operating complex military machinery, he couldn't find work and ended up as a window washer.
“His mother happened to be shopping and saw him. She was so appalled,” Jackson-Lyle said. “She told him he was better than that — he had been in the military. He felt he couldn't find a better job, so he did what he had to.”
Through hard work, the aviator became a businessman, running a restaurant and a landscaping business. He was so successful, he was able to buy a boat in the late 1950s and eventually helped to integrate Chicago's Jackson Park Yacht Club.
Sailing had always been a dream of Lyle's, and he took to it with aplomb, winning awards in that field as well. He so loved the water his wife said he hoped to spend his final days on Lake Michigan and was preparing for one last trip to that lake when he passed.
Lyle is survived by Jackson-Lyle and three stepchildren.
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