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Tuskegee Airman downplays historic role

Tuskegee Airman Jack Lyle visited Culture Stock bookstore AurorSaturday Feb. 16 2013. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media

Tuskegee Airman, Jack Lyle visited the Culture Stock bookstore in Aurora on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 21, 2013 6:12AM

AURORA — John “Jack” Lyle spent World War II flying P-40 aircraft escorting bomber planes in enemy territory across southern Europe.

“I never got hit — never came close,” said the veteran of the 332nd Fighter Group in the Army Air Forces.

“It was rather surprising — I almost got religion then,” he said, drawing laughter from a captivated audience.

Lyle, 92, is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen — an elite group of African-American pilots to serve in the segregated military in the 1940s.

But Lyle shrugs off any thought he was part of anything legendary.

Lyle spoke over the weekend in an informal setting at Aurora’s Culture Stock, a storefront bookstore that serves as a cultural clearing house that opened last fall in the heart of the downtown.

Sue-z Bruno, a Gates Elementary School teacher and board vice-president of L.I.F.T. Aurora (Live, Improve, Flourish and Thrive), the nonprofit charitable cultural organization backing Culture Stock, said Lyle is a friend of her family.

She said after several years he accepted her invitation to make a public appearance, with the encouragement of his wife of 32 years, Eunice Jackson-Lyle.

“He has an extraordinary story not only because he was raised at a different time and culture, but the opportunities he has taken in life —he didn’t set out to become a hero,” Bruno said.

Lyle is quick to say the “Tuskegee Airmen” were named because the pilots and crew were trained at Tuskegee Institute, now university, in Tuskegee, Ala.

“People forget we were in the Army,” he said.

Lyle said he was “semi-drafted” into the Army at age 22 because it was difficult to find a job and he knew the people on the draft board. He was originally assigned to the Army medical corps and wrote a letter to the secretary of war to ask for a transfer. He was reassigned to the infantry and when he realized they were looking for pilots, he took an IQ test and qualified. He arrived in Taranto, Italy, in 1944.

“Our job was to keep the bombers from being attacked by German aircraft,” he said.

“It’s the softest job in the Army – I didn’t have to be in the trenches,” he said.

Lyle flew 26 missions from Italy to Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany, flying 300 feet above bomber formation.

He said he considered his military career “an adventure” more than anything else.

“I was in a dog fight, shot at by enemy aircraft” he said of one mission.

As for being one of the first African-American pilots in the military, “I didn’t have any racial stuff. If there was, I might have ignored it. What I don’t like, I don’t pay any attention to.”

Lyle returned to Chicago after three years in the Army Air Forces and attended college and owned several businesses, including a tree cutting company. He pursued his passion for the water and became a “self-taught” sailor on Lake Michigan and still sails to this day.

He was in Washington when the Tuskegee Airmen, as a unit, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on March 29, 2007. He has a replica of the medal in his south side Chicago home.

Lyle said there were about 450 fighter pilots, and he thinks there are 40 still alive.

“We seldom see one another,” he told one admirer in the audience.

“Airmen don’t like to look at one another… we’re getting old,” he said with a smile.

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