SARATOGA SPRINGS Clarence Dart, a hero of World War II as a member of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, died Friday at Wesley Nursing Home. He was 91 years old.
Dart was among the last living members of the legendary unit of black fighter pilots, which has gained new public recognition with last month’s release of the Hollywood movie “Red Tails.” Dart was able to see the movie before his final decline.
The pioneering aviation unit demolished the notion that blacks didn’t have the ability to fly. Dart received many public recognitions and honors in recent years, even as his health declined. He was able to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington in 2009.
“That was very significant to him, seeing an African-American elected president,” said one of his granddaughters, Kristen Dart of Saratoga Springs.
Dart passed away surrounded by family two weeks after suffering a serious stroke in the nursing home.
“The outside world sees this great American hero, but he was always a great family man,” Kristen Dart recalled.
“I think he was a prime example of those who fought in World War II and are appropriately called the Greatest Generation,” said Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson. “He had to overcome many challenges, the racism issue being prime among them.”
Dart was born in Elmira and grew up knowing the poverty of the Great Depression. He was fascinated from boyhood by airplanes and flying.
He was able to achieve his dream when the military decided to form a black flying unit.
During World War II, the military was still segregated and the all-black 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps trained in the deep South, in Tuskegee, Ala., before being deployed to Italy.
In Europe, the unit flew close air support for infantry fighting toward Rome, and then flew escort missions for larger bombers — some of the most dangerous flying there was.
It flew fighter escort missions for bombers that were targeting factories, oil refineries and railyards in Germany and elsewhere in Nazi-held Europe.
In a 2007 interview with The Daily Gazette, Dart recalled being shot down twice while flying P-51 Mustangs. Once, his plane was hit by ground fire on its third pass in an effort to take out a German machine gun. He tried to make a belly landing in a farm field, but a wing touched the ground and the plane cartwheeled. Fortunately, he was strapped in.
“I have this scar on my forehead to remind me,” he said in the interview. “Some GIs got me out of the plane and got me to medics.”
Well into his 80s, Dart would sometimes go into classrooms to talk about his unique experiences.
Several honors have come his way in the last year.
Dart was inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame at the request of state Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga.
“Today we have lost one of the great heroes of our community and a role model for future generations. A man who stepped forward to serve his country and protect the ideals we believe in as Americans as a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen,” McDonald said in a statement Friday.
In April 2011, the Saratoga County Veterans’ Services Agency organized a large ceremony for Dart, held at Wesley. Among the speakers then were U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson and state Assemblyman James Tedisco.
“Here is truly an American hero,” Gibson said, going on to cite the racial discrimination that was then pervasive. “For Clarence, he had every right to sit this one out, when you think about the injustice in this country.”
After that ceremony, family members surprised Dart with a framed poster from a Tuskegee Airmen reunion earlier in the year, signed by many of the remaining living members. It brought a grin to his face.
After the war, Dart settled in Saratoga Springs, married, and raised a family. He worked 39 years as an engineer for General Electric, but seldom spoke to family of his war experiences.
“Family was really important to him. He impressed us with the importance of family and the importance of education,” said Kristen Dart, an assistant basketball coach at Skidmore College. All his children graduated from college.
Dart was the father of seven daughters and two sons, most of whom live in or near Saratoga. He also had eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Friday evening.