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For Tuskegee Airman George Porter, Failure Was Not An Option

Sixteen million men and women served in uniform during World War II. Today, 1.2 million are still alive, but hundreds of those vets are dying every day. In honor of Memorial Day, NPR's All Things Considered is remembering some of the veterans who died this year.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-Americans to fly and support combat planes. Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force George Porter, a crew chief and aircraft maintenance mechanic with the airmen, served for more than two decades with the U.S. Armed Forces. He died in February at the age of 91.

In a 2007 documentary, Porter spoke about the racial prejudice that made his job difficult during World War II.

"We did things that we weren't supposed to do as the mechanics on the flight line. Because when we would order parts, they wouldn't send us the parts, but we learned how to repair our own parts."

Porter often shared his experiences with younger members of his chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the George S. "Spanky" Roberts Chapter in Sacramento, Calif. During the war, the U.S. government "expected [the airmen] to fail," says Walter Suggs, a chapter member, "and they kind of put them in that situation, the Afro-Americans, so they would fail. So they wouldn't give them parts or anything like that."

So Porter and his colleagues, Suggs says, would make do. When an aircraft returned with a hole in its body, "they would go out and measure it and then they would go into the mess hall ... where you could find these empty cans," Suggs explains. "They would take them, cut them up into a patch and they would take it and go out and rivet it to the aircraft."

The lessons Porter learned during the war stayed with him, and he, in turn, passed them onto his daughter Linda. As she grew up, she says, her father would counsel her on how to overcome setbacks at school.

"Don't let anybody tell you that you will fail," he would tell her. "Prove to them that you are worth every inch and ounce of your being and that you can do it better than anyone else."

George Porter spent 23 years in the Army Air Forces and the Air Force. A career in civilian aviation followed. Porter retired in the late 1980s.

"When a pilot [gets] in his airplane, he's got his goggles on, he's got his helmet on ... and his shades down," Porter once said of the Tuskegee Airmen. "You don't know whether he's black or white."

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