Still making a difference after eight decades

  • Published
  • By Capt. Philip Wieser
  • 944th Force Support Squadron Operations Officer
Taking time away from his loving wife of 67 years, Dr. Thurston Gaines, Jr., a World War II fighter pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen shared memories with a group of 944th Force Support Airman during their annual tour this month. He told stories about his youth, military exploits and civilian life.

Dr. Gaines is a very special member of "The Greatest Generation," as Tom Brokaw called those American's who contributed to freeing the world from fascism during World War II. He is one of less than 1000 pilots that were trained as aviation cadets at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Ala; even fewer seeing combat during WWII.

Thurston Gaines of Freeport, New York, graduated as a Flight officer on Aug. 4, 1944. He deployed to Italy with the 99th Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. He flew his first combat mission out of Italy in February 1945. In April 1945, he was shot down on his 25th mission by anti-aircraft fire becoming a prisoner of war and survived two German jails and a prison camp before being repatriated in June 1945. He returned to Tuskegee to become an instructor pilot in the B-25 medium bomber and after serving for a total of four years left military life.

He earned numerous awards including the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart, one of eight awarded to Tuskegee Airmen, and the Presidential Unit Citation. Dr. Gaines graduated in 1948 from New York University and in 1949, entered medical school and earned his M.D. Degree in June 1953. After almost 20 years of surgical practice, he transitioned into the job of Medical Director of a veteran hospital in Massachusetts. He retired in 1988 after more than 45 years of military and medical service to his country.

In his seventies, after almost a decade of retirement, and two minor strokes, Dr. Gaines decided to return to work as a Phlebotomist. He then became a Professor at Southwest College of Naturopathic medicine in Tempe, Arizona.

Now in his eighties, he is a substitute teacher in the local elementary schools. He was honored as the Pendergast School District Substitute of the Year in 2006-07.

Airmen left with a better understanding of our military history and an increased appreciation of those who opened doors that were once closed, "It was a wonderful opportunity to meet Dr. Gaines. He was very inspiring and very sweet," Senior Airman Adriana Brimmer, a 944th Force Support Squadron, Services Journeymen "The legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen of overcoming discrimination and prejudice to become some of the best pilots our nation had to offer will live on with all those who were in attendance."

Underscoring that legacy, Dr. Gaines left with these words of wisdom, "What you attain is important but how you attain it is equally important."