SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Scotch Plains is mourning local legend Malcolm E. Nettingham, a member of World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen, who died on Monday evening just a few days before his 102nd birthday. He lived in town for almost a century and in 2014 was chosen to be the grand marshal of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Memorial Day Parade.
Mr. Nettingham was born in New York City on October 1, 1918. He moved to Scotch Plains with his parents, John and Alice Nettingham, at age five and graduated from Scotch Plains High School in 1936. He enlisted in the Armed Services at Fort Dix in 1944, completed his basic training at Keesler Field, Mississippi, and was accepted for training as an Army Air Corps flight radio operator at Scotts Field, IL. A member of the first racially integrated flight radio communications class, he was assigned to the 617th Squadron, 477th Composite Group as radio operator/gunner in 1945.
“They gave me an aptitude test, and I was pretty good at identifying Morse Code,” said Mr. Nettingham, who trained in both radio electronics and how to use 50 caliber guns. “We weren’t called the Tuskegee Airmen back then.”
Mr. Nettingham considers himself fortunate that the Army Air Corps chose him to be among five black servicemen for an integrated class.
“They never told me why they selected me. I believe the Army was conducting an experiment to see how we would perform, but they never told us that,” Mr. Nettingham said. “We had a chance to show we could learn as well as anybody else. We studied hard and made sure that the guys learned what they needed to know. All of us made the honor roll. When the classes were done, we went back to our barracks, and the white soldiers went back to theirs.”
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame prejudice, which resulted in months of lost training time, to become a respected group of service members during World War II. Their achievements helped pave the way for full integration of the U.S. military.
In 2007, more than 300 living Tuskegee Airmen attended a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol and received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress may bestow. All Tuskegee Airmen, totaling over a thousand servicemen, have been so honored, including some who received the medal posthumously. Mr. Nettingham and four others from New Jersey were presented with their medals by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg at a ceremony held in Newark. He also was invited to attend both of President Obama’s Inaugurations.
“Black soldiers have fought in our wars ever since the start of this country. The military discovered that when given the chance to fight, they were dedicated to try to win,” Mr. Nettingham explained.
A sharply dressed man who always looked decades younger than he was, Mr. Nettingham believed that Harry S. Truman deserves more credit than he gets for integrating the military and society overall.
“Truman attended a black daredevil fliers air show when he was a Senator. They mentioned to him that they weren’t allowed to fly. He went back to Washington and started the talk in Congress in 1940. That helped get things started.”
The U.S. military eventually trained nearly 1,000 pilots in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946. Of that group, 355 were deployed overseas, and 84 gave their lives. Tuskegee Airman were awarded with 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts.
With the exception of his wartime service, Mr. Nettingham lived his entire adult life in Scotch Plains. He was an active member of Metropolitan Baptist Church, where he sang in the Men’s Chorus.
Typical of the men of his generation, he did not boast about his military experience. However, Mr. Nettingham was willing to speak to any group that invited him.
“Sometimes I think people get a little disappointed when they find out I wasn’t a pilot. Being a pilot has some glamour to it,” he said, as he paged through a nearly 70-year-old yearbook of photographs that the army published. “But you need more than just pilots. You need navigators, radio men, mechanics – all the people who keep the planes in the air.”
After the war, President Truman's Executive Order 9981 made the integration of the armed forces official. Mr. Nettingham believed the Tuskegee Airmen played a major role in the decision and finds it rewarding that in recent years the corps have gotten their due.
“It makes me feel really good. Knowing that I had a part of a big thing: the integration of the military,” he said, as he pointed out some colleagues who went on to high positions in the service.
“Those of us who are still around, we spread the word. I enjoy talking to kids in grammar and middle school who may not have made up their minds what they want to be yet,” Mr. Nettingham said. “Today, the Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated works to integrate aviation and encourage young people to pursue careers in the air industry.”
Mr. Nettingham is survived by his daughter Deborah, of Scotch Plains, by his son, Malcolm V., and six grandchildren.