Herbert C. Thorpe
Celebrate 100 years of Mr. Thorpe's service to country and community on January 15, 2023!
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Herbert C. Thorpe was born on January 9, 1923 in Manhattan, grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn -- and commissioned on December 30, 1945 as Second Lieutenant Navigator Bombardier
on December 30, 1944.
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PRESENTATIONS & LECTURES
Mr. Thorpe is available for
presentations about his Tuskegee experience and especially enjoys talking with school children and young adults. To inquire about a presentation click here >
Based in the New York City metropolitan area (New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey, southwestern Connecticut) the Claude B. Govan chapter has perhaps the largest number of actively involved Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen (DOTAs) in the nation.
Lieutenant Thorpe's Story
Born in Manhattan on January 9, 1923 and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Herbert C. Thorpe is the second oldest of six children born to Barbadian immigrants. He graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School (now Paul Robeson Technical School) and enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps – working as a clerk typist in Van Etten and Camden, NY and as an automotive mechanic in Beltsville, MD – before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves in October of 1942.
In December 1942 Mr. Thorpe enrolled in U. S. Signal Corps School in Troy, NY, and the following June began basic training at Kearns Field near Salt Lake City, UT. After completing basic training, he applied for and was accepted to cadet school. In early 1944, he traveled from Utah through California to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi to take the aptitude test – then on to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to begin the first phase of pilot training.
“The first flight was to see if you could adapt to flying in an airplane. They would do all kinds of maneuvers, like ‘loop-de-loops’,” he recalls of the Black civilian pilots at Tuskegee’s Moton Airfield who were his first flying instructors.
Novice cadets also were taught to start the PT-17 single engine bi-planes – manually, by spinning the propeller ("without getting chopped to pieces,"Thorpe says) – and to take off, land and eventually fly solo during the first six weeks of training.
"After you took off, you got up to a certain altitude. The instructor would suddenly cut out the engine and the airplane would stall and start to spin toward the ground. Then you had to get the airplane back under control and get the engine started again,” Thorpe said, explaining that there were no Black military pilots at that time, so all the flight instructors were white.
Most cadets went to advanced training after that, but Thorpe was selected for navigator-bombardier training first.
He was sent from Tuskegee to gunnery school in Florida where he learned to operate the belly turret in the multi-
engine B-17 plane – and then back
through Tuskegee to bombardier-navigator school at Midland Airfield in Texas.
“About 20 of us were in the one class I was in. We learned to operate the bomb site and to navigate cross country using aerial maps. In those days we didn’t have anything like computers or GPS. Everything was done manually.”
Herbert C. Thorpe was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant Navigator Bombardier on December 30, 1944. Because the Armed Air Forces were not integrating multi-engine air crews then, Black navigator-bombardiers had
nowhere to go.
“They sent us back to Tuskegee Army Airfield where were went into advanced flying training to operate multi-engine aircraft. We were then qualified as a
B-25 pilot,” Thorpe said.
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Tuskegee Airman Richard E. Thorpe
Thorpe's younger brother Richard Engle enlisted right out of high school, and had been commissioned as a fighter pilot a few months earlier in 1944. The two met for the last time in early 1945 at Tuskegee Army Airfield, when Richard took his older brother Herbert out for maneuvers in a P-40 combat trainer. Richard died a few weeks later, in April 1945, while on an orientation mission in Italy. The Thorpe brothers are listed on page 309 of the book Black Knights: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen by Homan and Reilly (2001, Pelican Press).
After Tuskegee: Community Champion of Rome, New York
Radar Engineer at Brooklyn Navy Yard, Griffiss Air Force Base
After an honorable discharge in the summer of 1946, Mr. Thorpe returned to Brooklyn. He worked for the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Postal Service before enrolling in New York University under the G.I. Bill. He earned his Bachelor of Electronic Engineering degree in 1953, and was employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As a radar engineer, part of his job was refurbishing old WWII Navy destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers with updated radar equipment, and he would sometimes travel to other countries to pick up the ships.
“I went to Guantanamo twice in Cuba. The first time I went the old regime was still in power. And the second time I went Castro has just taken over power. When we got there the country was under military rule. We had a lot of trouble with passports. In fact, they took our passports, and wouldn’t give them back to us. We had to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana to get permission to fly out of Cuba. Castro wasn’t going to let us go.”
The next year, in 1959, he moved from Brooklyn with his wife and two children to work at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY.
“I worked in the radar research department, on what they called surveillance radar, or beacon tracking systems.
They called them IFF systems, Identification Friend From Foe," he says. "Tracking systems are much more sophisticated now. But that was one of the main [tracking] system they relied on, especially during the Cold War in the 60s.”
Mr. Thorpe retired from Griffiss in 1983, and a year later went to work as a part-time guidance counselor at Mohawk Valley Community College until 1996.
Charter member of the Rome Branch NAACP; Co-Founder of Afro-American Heritage Association
As a prominent member of the Rome, NY community, he helped to charter the Rome Branch NAACP, and served as its first secretary and for ten years as president. He also is a charter member, past president and recent past secretary of the Mohawk Valley Club of Frontiers International. He was also a charter member and secretary of Prince Hall Military Lodge No. 112, and a past member of the advisory board for the Oneida County Office of Aging.
Mr. Thorpe and his wife Jessie, who celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary on January 27, 2019, were also Fresh Air Fund “parents” for many years, and together helped to found the Afro-American Heritage Association in Rome. They have been active members of the First Presbyterian Church of Rome for more than 50 years, and have two children, five grandchildren. one great grandson and two great granddaughters.
An avid golfer, Herbert C. Thorpe is a current member of Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated, Claude D. Govan, Tri-State Chapter, NY. He has received numerous awards and recognition for his civic and humanitarian contributions, including the Medal of 1977 from the Rome Historical Society in September 2012, and the prestigious “Roses for the Living” Award from Rome Rotary in June 2005.