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Lt. Col. Donald C. Thomas Jr., USAF, Retired

1926 - 2011

2015 Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame Lt. Col. Donald Thomas Jr.Lt. Col. Donald C. Thomas Jr. was born in Detroit, MIon November 14, 1926 and passed away on November 29th, 2011. Donald was always intrigued by aircraft and flight. When an all-Black Fighter Group was stationed at Selfridge Airfield for Gunnery Training near his hime in 1943, he was "hooked" on flying when he saw the Black flyers in action on several occasions. In early 1944, Donald took and passed the Army Air Corps flying qualification exam. Too young to join the Services then, he waited for the call and at 18, Donald was inducted into the military and off to Keesler Field, Mississippi for Basic Training.

While Cadet Thomas began his journey south as a boastful 18 year old, he became more cautious as he got closer to Mississippi. He recalled becoming very aware of the separate seating for blacks in restaurants, as well as the special bathrooms and other facilities. He remembered this journey as his intdroduction to segregation and discrimination.

A pivotal point for Cadet Thomas was when he and close to 60 other cadets were told to retake the entrance test previously passed months earlier. After the retest, they individually reported to an Army Captain, who told Cadet Thomas he had failed. As he turned towards the door in dismay, the Captain quickly told him he had made a mistake. While shaken, Thomas was thrilled to be one of only thirteen cadets in his group retained for aviation training. He enthusiastically embarked on his next phase of training, eventually arriving at the famed Tuskegee Institute, which is recognized for training more than 990 Black military aviators and being the first step towards a desegregated military.

While Cadet Thomas completed his training, the war ended before he could deploy. The Tuskegee program was disbanded shortly after and Thomas separated from the military to continue his civilian education. He reentered the military in 1950 and was required to complete the Aviation Cadet Program a second time. After successfully completing the program, he served with distinction until retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1983. His flight qualifications include single and multi-engine propeller and jet aircraft (PT-13, T-6, T-28, B-25, C-47, C-46, SA-16, C-82, C-119, C-130, T-33, F-80, F-84, F-86, DC-9, T-39, C-141), and he served as an instructor, evaluator and a command pilot logging over 6,800 flying hours, 2,000 of which were carrier takeoffs and landings. Lt. Col Thomas also served as Security Forces Commander, a Provost Marshal, an instructor at Embry-Riddle University, an Assistant Professor of Aerospace Science at NC A&T State University, and a teacher for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools and Detroit Public Schools. His education included a B.A. in Biology, Chemistry and Physics; B.S. in Science Education; and a M.A. in Education. His military decorations included the Joint Services Commendation Medal with an Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal with an Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Medal with an Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Unit Citation, US Navy Unit Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Combat Readiness Medal, Armed Forces Expedition Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal with three Campaign Stars, Long and Short Tour Campaign Medals, American Theater Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, the Reserve Officers Medal with a Ten Year Hour Glass, and Congressional Gold Medal through legislation under President George W. Bush, officially recognizing the original Tuskegee Airmen.

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program