Tuskegee Airman Among Veterans Honored During American Legion Post 251 Ceremony


MONTCLAIR, NJ – Crawford Crews Post 251 hosted an awards ceremony on Saturday honoring four veterans who served in the U.S. Military.

Post 251 Commander Darrell Collins said, “We wanted to give these certificates of appreciation to our members of the American Legion Post 251.”

Any member of the American Legion Post 251 who has served honorably as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Coast Guard, or the U.S. Reserve Forces who has been honorably discharged or retired from active duty as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida National Guard, the U.S. Reserve Forces, or Merchant Mariners with veteran status is eligible to become a member

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Dozens of veterans and supporters filled the banquet hall to honor Tuskegee Airman Charles Nolley, WWII and Korean War Veteran Henry Curtis Rock, Gordon Garrett for 50 years of service to the American Legion and an Honor of Appreciation was given to Samuel Debnam.

Nolley, who was born June 14, 1917, served for three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was a Tuskegee Airman.  As a Tuskegee Airman, Nolley was a member of the 99th Pursuit Squadron that protected American bombers from enemy attacks during WWII. After the service, Nolley went on to become a teacher in the Newark Public Schools.

The Civilian Pilot Training Act was signed into law in 1939 that authorized military pilots to be trained by civilian schools and the inclusion of African Americans in the program was implemented as a result of an amendment.

Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was able to provide the training. With pressure from the community, the 99th squadron was formed. Four all-African-American groups of fighter pilots came from this experiment, known as the Tuskegee Experiment.

Nolley told the crowd that the Tuskegee Airmen set themselves apart from enemy combat pilots by painting the tails of their plane red, thus earning them the name Red-Tails. The Red-Tails flew hundreds of missions during the war in Europe, escorting bomber planes and destroying enemy vehicles and ships. A former longtime Montclair resident, Nolley now resides in Edison.

Captain Rock joined the Air Force in 1949. He served as a senior pilot, training instructor for the P6 and an instructor pilot for P33. He also flew the P51 and F86 and served as a pilot instructor at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama and Williams Air Force Base in Arizona as a cadet instructor. In 1951, Rock performed a raid at Punch Bowl in Korea where his mission was performed individually without his two wingmen, thus wiping out a section of Koreans by himself. He received an honorable mention, but fell short of receiving the distinguished flying Cross. Rock retired in 1960 as a captain in the Air Force prior to beginning a career at L'Oreal.

Captain Garrett, Jr. began his military career in 1952 in 1952 at Camp Pickett, Virginia. After being transferred to San Francisco, Garrett was shipped to Korea and served with the 514th Medical Clearing Company, where he remained until his discharge in 1954. Garrett  joined the American Legion in 1964 and was being awarded for his 50 years of service to the American Legion.

Debnam, longtime Montclair resident, enlisted in the United States Army Signal Corp but was transferred to the Air Force where he served as an instrument and propeller specialists on the B-17 aircraft. After his time in the service, Debnam worked as a jeweler before going on to start a catering company, Debnam Caterers. He was awarded a certificate of appreciation from the American Legion.

Two resolutions issued by the Essex County Freeholders were also awarded to Nolley and Rock along with a certificate of continuous membership issued to Garrett for service to American Legion for 50 years.

East Orange Board of Education member Arthur Wright and Montclair Councilor Dr. Renee Baskerville were also in attendance.

Collins closed the ceremony expressing that it is his desire to recruit newer veterans into the post, to increase visibility in the community and to beautify the Post 251 building. In response, one of the Post 251 members shared with the group how she approached Applebee's in Plainfield to honor Veterans with a free meal on Veteran's Day. She proudly boasted that the initiative has now spread to Applebee's restaurants across the country and that they are looking to sponsor more of these types of initiatives to benefit Veterans.

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