Maine Civil Air Patrol is holding its annual meeting Saturday

in Lewiston.

LEWISTON – A 79-year-old member of the legendary World War II unit, the Tuskeegee Airmen, is to be among the fliers who will gather Saturday in Lewiston for an assembly of the Maine Civil Air Patrol.

Pilot James A. Sheppard will be joined by local police, Rep. Michael Michaud and a variety of local officials, all aimed at helping the patrol continue its role as rescuers and protectors of the coast.

Sheppard, who lives in South Portland, plans to talk about his war years in the segregated African-American unit. He spent 1944 and 1945 as an aircraft mechanic in makeshift airfields in Italy, helping keep planes aloft as they fought the Germans and Italians.

“I told the Army I wanted to be a pilot,” said Sheppard, who was 17 when he was drafted.

However, he had just graduated from a technical high school in New York City that specialized in aviation. They needed him on the ground.

The Army created the African-American unit in rural Alabama. New airfields and hangars were built. Their mascot was a black panther.

By 1943, a fighter squadron from the group was in north Africa. They moved to Sicily and then Italy. In January of 1944, Sheppard’s squadron joined them in Italy. A staff sergeant, Sheppard rarely worked in hangars. There were none. Runways were created in wheat fields and sheep pastures. Engineers built the airstrips out of steel.

By the war’s end, the Tuskeegee Airmen had shot down 111 enemy aircraft, destroyed another 150 on the ground and sunk one German destroyer. They flew 200 bomber escort missions against some of the most heavily-defended targets in the Third Reich and never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.

The cost was high. By Sheppard’s count, about 100 of the nearly 1,000 Tuskeegee pilots were shot down.

Sheppard stayed in aviation.

Shortly after the war, he became a private pilot. For a while, he worked as a mechanic on commercial planes at New York’s JFK Airport, then called Idlewild International. A few years later, he was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration as a safety inspector. In 1971, he moved to South Portland, still working for the FAA. He retired in 1987.

He still watches out for his old group, the 332nd Fighter group. Now, the Black Panthers are part of the Air Force, serving from the U.S base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

And Sheppard remains flying. The last time was in the summer of 2002.

His speech is planned for the morning portion of the meeting, scheduled for Lewiston’s Chalet Motel. The speech will be open only to Civil Air Patrol members and guests.

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