Meridian Star

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October 10, 2012

Tag design to honor Tuskegee Airmen

MCCOMB, Miss. — Clint Martin's artwork depicting dogfights waged by the black World War II-era flyers known as the Tuskegee Airmen has been shown in the state Capitol, the Pentagon, a Smithsonian Institute museum, on military bases and in airports.

He hopes to see it soon on car bumpers.

Martin, a McComb native living in Hattiesburg, recently designed a commemorative license plate honoring the airmen's role in World War II of protecting bomber squadrons.

His illustration shows a Tuskegee Airman zipping through the sky in a one of the squadron's trademark P-51 Mustangs. Its tail rudder is painted a brilliant red, noting the origin of the pilots' nicknames, "Red Tails."

The pilot on the license plate isn't just some anonymous airman, it's Martin's uncle, the late Walter Downs of Magnolia, who was commander of the 301st Fighter Squadron — one of three that make up the Tuskegee Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group.

Downs and McComb native Oliver Dillon are believed to be the only Tuskegee Airmen from Pike County, according to Martin, a retired dentist and self-taught artist who served as a historical adviser for the 1995 HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen."

Martin said he designed the plate, and legislation passed this past year authorized its use. But 300 people must order the tag, or else the effort to honor the airmen won't get off the ground, Martin said.

"If we get 300 people — which I hope we will — they will print the tag," Martin said. "There ought to be 300 people in this state that want to put that tag on their car."

It costs an extra $31 to get the specialty tag.

Like other specialty tags, money generated from sales go to charity. In this case, it's the Trail of Honor, a massive parade of motorcycles that makes its way from California to Washington, D.C., every Memorial Day weekend and makes a stop in Jackson along the way.

"We have at least four Medal of Honor recipients come to that event every year," Martin said of the Jackson layover, which is held at a Harley-Davidson dealership.

His move to design the commemorative license plate came after several dealings with the Legislature, including proclamations honoring him and his father, the late L.J. Martin Sr., who ran unsuccessfully in 1965 for the McComb city board.

Martin's proclamation celebrated his artwork in preserving the legacy of the airmen.

Martin said he pays careful attention to historical detail in his illustrations, which all tell a story about specific missions or battles.

On a recent day, he showed off one piece that's still a work in progress. It shows a hobbled B-24 being led to safety by a Tuskegee Airman, which had staved off a threat from a German squadron, whose planes are seen as tiny silhouettes retreating into the clouds.

The bomber pilot was Hattiesburg oil magnate Curt Weaver, who lived for decades not knowing the name of the Tuskegee Airman who saved his life.

Martin learned about the story while living in Hattiesburg and knew who the identity of the mystery pilot, who had the word "Lucifer" painted on his plane. Turns out it was his old neighbor from California, Ed Gleed.

"This painting is what that's supposed to be about — that mission," Martin said. "I had to do this based on the story."


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