Spanky Roberts: W.Va.'s First African-American Aviation Legend

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st. Caleb Vance
  • 130th Airlfit Wing

If you search West Virginia military heritage on the internet, a long list of heroic names come up. Individuals such as Chuck Yeager, Woody Williams, and Jessica Lynch usually are the first to pop up, but one name you really have to dig to find is someone who broke barriers and paved a way for African-American Airmen.

Retired Col. George “Spanky” Roberts was born September 24, 1918 in the small rural town of London, WV. At an early age he and his family moved to Fairmont, WV where he graduated from Dunbar High at the age of 15, then returning South to attend West Virginia State College (WVSC). At only 18 years old, Spanky graduated with his Bachelor’s in Mechanical Arts.

In 1939, WVSC was one of only six historically black colleges across the nation selected to be granted permission to carry out the Civil Aeronautics Program, formerly at Wertz Field, where a chemical plant stands today. He entered into the program as soon as it opened and graduated in 1941 with the first class. Ten men and one woman soon traveled to Tuskegee Institute for further training.

In July of that year, Spanky entered the U.S. Army Air Corps (now U.S. Air Force) and became the first African-American Aviation Cadet, which was the first of his many firsts. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and was joined by another WVSC graduate from Ohio and four others in the first class of Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviation force.

Spanky started his career as an instructor upon graduation from Tuskegee in advanced flight training school and married his college sweetheart, Edith. He was soon in for a big change. When the second World War started he had to put his pilot skills to the test and defend his country. He entered the war as the Commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, where he saw his first action in the deserts of North Africa. By the wars end, Spanky had more than 100 missions in four different continents.

After the war, Spanky became the Senior Air Corps Reserve Officer Training Corps Instructor at the Tuskegee Institute and would later become the Dean of the School of Military Science there. The George S. Roberts Squadron Arnold Air Society was named in his honor in 1952. Later that year, Spanky was ordered to report to Langley Air Force Base where he found out he would be serving as the first African-American to command a racially mixed unit in the Air Force. Following his stint at Langley, he went to Ft. Leavenworth and graduated with his Masters Degree.

After furthering his education, and another move, Spanky reported to Korea as a Colonel, commanding the 51st Air Base Group. In one last move, he came back to the U.S. to McClellan Air Force Base, where he would retire in 1968.

In Spanky’s illustrious, monumental career, he accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours and a list of awards to include the Air Force Commendation Medal with four oak leaf clusters and multiple Presidential Unit Citations.

Early in retirement he moved to Sacramento and served as a banker with Wells Fargo until his second retirement in 1982. He became very active in the community and church, working in programs to get meals to the elderly and sick, as well as the “Hipsters” which helped people with recent hip replacements get back to normal.

He was the first black aviation cadet who graduated in the first class, first commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, first commander to a racially mixed unit in the United States Air Force, first black student at U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and first black student to graduate with a Master’s Degree there.

George “Spanky” Roberts died March 8, 1984 of a heart attack in Sacramento. He left behind his wife, one son and three daughters. He was featured in news articles all across the country, even being featured in Times Magazine, and multiple West Virginia newspapers, as well as a bridge in Fairmont dedicated in his name.

He embodied every aspect of “Airmanship” in every way possible. He was more than just an instructor and supervisor to fellow Airmen, he led them and walked through it all with them. Years before Dr. King’s powerful speeches, Rosa Parks courageous actions and all that came with the civil rights movement, Spanky was silently fighting the same fight and we are a stronger Air Force because of him.