BILOXI, Miss. — Tuskegee Airman Robert A. Decatur was buried with full military honors this week in the Biloxi National Cemetery but his death at age 88 has not laid to rest the contention of comrades that Decatur’s legendary life was largely his own creation.
Decatur died at his home in Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 19.
In 1943, he was among volunteers for the Tuskegee Airmen sent to Keesler Field in Biloxi for basic training, then on to Tuskegee, Ala., where the airmen trained as a segregated unit at an air base.
In a 2001 Associated Press story about a joint meeting of the Tuskegee Airman Inc. and The Organization of Black Airline Pilots in Tennessee, Decatur said the Tuskegee program was considered an experiment and the airmen knew they could not fail.
“We knew that if we failed, there would be no other programs for black Americans to fly,” he said then.
Because of his stories of heroism, the Arkansas chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen is named in his honor.
“He included himself as one of those heroes, and he wasn’t,” said John Gay, president of the Orlando chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., told the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.
Gay’s association was created in 1972 to honor the first black pilots trained in Tuskegee, Ala., during World War II.
The newspaper reported that records show Decatur was a Tuskegee cadet in 1944 but did not complete pilot training. He did not graduate from flying school and never flew in combat.
For Decatur, who retired to Titusville in 1992, becoming a Tuskegee cadet was an honor in itself and earned him the lifelong legitimacy of being a Tuskegee Airman. He graduated with a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio in 1951.
His friend and fellow Brevard County Airman Noel Harris said Decatur’s portrayal of himself as a Tuskegee pilot was not so different from the war stories heard at every Army reunion.
In creating his own fame, Decatur defamed the men in the cockpits who were true heroes, said Ron Brewington, former public relations officer for Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Brewington said he became frustrated that the organization didn’t do more to stop Decatur. Gay told the Orlando newspaper that it’s not the Tuskegee way to publicly admonish members.
Questions also have been raised about other achievements Decatur claimed: judge, law teacher, civil rights attorney with Martin Luther King Jr. and confidant of John F. Kennedy.
Decatur spent 25 years as a probate magistrate in Cleveland and referred to himself as Judge Decatur. But the magistrates, who deal mostly with estates, are not judges, said court spokeswoman Ann Vanik.
One of the schools where Decatur said he taught, Cleveland State University Law School, confirmed that he was a part-time adjunct instructor in the 1970s. Three other schools where Decatur said he taught law had no records of him, according to the newspaper.
As for his connections to King and Kennedy, the newspaper said those claims could not be confirmed.
Decatur was a pilot and he flew a planeload of water purifiers and supplies to Haiti in 2005, following a flood that devastated the island.
The measure of the man should be in his actions and his deeds, not his words, said his friend Joe Hurston, who provided the water purifiers.
“I have all kinds of evidence that the Judge was genuine, that the Judge cared deeply for people,” said Hurston, 58. “The Judge to me is and always will be a hero.”
And to his children, Decatur was the bigger-than-life man he portrayed himself to be.
“I know he was an important person in Cleveland and the community. He was a person held in high esteem, and he was my dad,” Dawne Mumford, 57, told the newspaper.
At the same time, Mumford wonders herself about the real Robert Decatur: “It confuses me sometimes. I don’t know really what he was.”