Biggs wanted to join the U.S. Army Air Corps as a 16-year-old, but he was initially prohibited by his father—a military man himself—who admonished Biggs to first finish high school. He was accepted by the service the day after he turned 18 in 1943. He requested combat duty, qualified for aviation cadet training, and was placed into the Tuskegee Institute with other Black service personnel, The Arizona Republic reported.
The group trained on Boeing-Stearman PT–17 Kaydets and Fairchild PT–19 Cornells, and learned to fly Curtiss P–40 Warhawks, Bell P–39 Airacobras, Republic P–47 Thunderbolts, and North American P–51 Mustangs painted with distinctive red tails. The group from Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama known as the “Red Tails” earned a solid reputation for providing backup during bomber escort missions in North Africa and the European theater.
An obituary posted by The National WWII Museum said Biggs trained for aerial gunnery and navigator-bomber roles in North American B–25 Mitchell bombers during World War II and rose to the rank of master sergeant.
After the war ended, Biggs re-enlisted as a non-commissioned officer in the newly created U.S. Air Force and “started all over again,” recalled his daughter Rose Biggs-Dickerson. “It took another four years before he was recommissioned as an officer.” During the Korean War he flew bomber missions from Okinawa, Japan, on Boeing B–29 Superfortresses and from South Korea on Martin B–26 Marauders.
When the Korean conflict ended, he was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona, and also flew Boeing B–47 Stratojets. Biggs-Dickerson said her father was one of the first African American officers stationed there and he “worked hard to help other Black airmen settle into life at the base.”
Biggs later flew Boeing B–52 Stratofortress bombers during the Vietnam War and earned numerous military honors. Despite his accomplishments, he spoke often of the discrimination he faced in the military, The Air Force Times reported.
Serving in the military runs in the family, explained Biggs-Dickerson: “Dad was the oldest of four brothers, and they were also in the Air Force. His other brothers were also bombardiers/navigators during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. My father, being the oldest, was the only brother to serve in World War II, but they all had very successful military careers.” The Biggs’ family military service began with “my dad’s grandfather—he was a Buffalo soldier,” a group of African Americans who served on the Western frontier during the late 1800s. Her younger cousins also entered military service to keep the tradition alive. “Military is what we know. It’s part of our legacy,” she said.
In 2007 Biggs and other Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal for their military service. In 2013, then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer met with Biggs and a group of fellow Tuskegee Airmen to acknowledge their accomplishments and established the state’s yearly commemoration of their service—celebrated during the fourth Thursday in March.
Biggs-Dickerson said a military service is planned for October 2 in Phoenix and hoped it would include a flyover by Luke Air Force Base pilots. She said her father never saw himself as a hero, but rather as “a soldier who followed the orders he was given. He didn’t want to be considered a hero because they did what they were supposed to do.”
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