The room was silent as former bomber pilot and East Hampton native Lee Hayes recalled his time in the Army and the challenges he faced as a black man during World War II.
He could vividly remember one trip off the base, after he hopped aboard a bus in Texas.
Back then, he said, the buses were segregated, but there was no space at the back of the bus for him to sit.
“There was a blonde girl sitting by herself and she said to me, ‘sit down. Just have a seat,'” Mr. Hayes said. Later, a military police officer noticed him sitting in the front of the bus, grabbed him and tried to remove him from the bus.
“When he grabbed me, I just came around with my elbow and hit him in the gut,” he joked.
Mr. Hayes, now 89, was honored Wednesday afternoon at a ceremony at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead as one of the nation’s first African-American pilots. He was a member of the “Tuskegee Airmen,” an elite group of 996 black pilots who served in World War II.
The ceremony drew hundreds of people who packed a building’s main room, where Mr. Hayes was praised for his accomplishments by local officials. Photos of his time in the service were also displayed in both sides of him.
“All of us are very proud of this man and his place in our history,” said Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine.
Mr. Hayes and the other pilots, named after the base where they trained in Tuskegee, Ala., helped break the U.S. military’s color barrier through their valor and courage in battle. While the most famous of the Airmen, the “Red Tails,” escorted bombers over Europe, Mr. Hayes trained as a B-25 Mitchell bomber pilot with the 477th Bombardment Group, and eventually earned his certification as a pilot in 1946, just five months after the war ended.
During their service, the pilots faced racism both from inside and outside the military, which was racially segregated at the time. Upon returning home as a trained pilot, Mr. Hayes said he couldn’t find a job with the expanding commercial airline industry, which only hired white pilots.
“We went to several places and they wouldn’t even listen to you,” he said. “They wouldn’t give us a chance.”
But since that time, things have changed, he said, as the country began to desegregate and recognize those who served in spite of the prejudice leveled against them.
Mr. Hayes, who never got a job with an airline and worked manual labor at farms on the East End and as a janitor at Brookhaven National Labs, said he was glad to see some pilots following in his footsteps. After a recent talk Mr. Hayes attended, he said a black man walked up to him and hugged him.
The man was a commercial airline pilot, and thanked Mr. Hayes for paving the way for his career.
“That made me feel so good,” Mr. Hayes said. “My God, I really did do something. Even though I didn’t get it, someone else did.”