AUBURN — Minutes after Jim Sheppard spoke to a crowd of 500 Edward Little High School students Thursday, dozens of the teens lined up to meet the World War II veteran whose Army unit, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, inspired movies.

‘Thanks,” said some as they drifted past on their way to classes. Others offered handshakes. A couple added, “It’s an honor.”

The simple moment — following a 90-minute assembly that included band and chorus music, pledges to “never forget” and speeches by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, and Maine first lady Ann LePage — was what the day seemed all about.

The event was part of a nationwide Take a Veteran to School Day.

“It’s an opportunity for us to show our pride as a school community to our veterans,” Assistant Principal Steve Galway said.

In all, about 200 veterans answered a community-wide invitation to attend the event. As they entered the school gym, they were given yellow T-shirts and escorted to seats in a center corridor marked with flowers.

All were honored with ovations.

But the Harlem native, who spoke for only about nine minutes, was the star.

Sheppard, 88, enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 as an aviation mechanic and was sent to the 332nd Fighter Group, an African-American unit based in then-segregated Tuskegee, Ala.

“They never drafted me simply because I was eager to get in while they were starting to train black pilots and mechanics for the first time in the U.S. military,” Sheppard said.

The unit was created despite the racist complaints of many decision-makers.

Sheppard told the students that too many people had forgotten that an African-American man was among the first people killed during the American Revolution. In 1770, six years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Crispus Attucks was killed in the Boston Massacre.

“And yet, they didn’t want us to serve in their precious Air Force,” Sheppard said. “Anyway, President Roosevelt changed that with an executive order.”

The unit went to North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. It became one of the most decorated in the Army Air Corps, the pilots proving themselves particularly good at air-to-air combat, better known as “dogfighting.”

“We lost more pilots flying against the German (ground) army, than we did in dogfights over Germany,” Sheppard said.

The unit’s exploits have been the source of several movies, including “The Tuskegee Airmen” and “Red Tails.”

Unlike in the movies, there was little fighting or jealousy among the people in the racially divided U.S. air groups.

“It was really more competition than segregation,” he said. “We didn’t fight each other like they did in the movies. We’d compare notes. We’d say, ‘Let’s see what happens next week.’ That’s the way it was. It was almost like a football game, as far as keeping records.”

When the war in Europe ended, the 332nd Fighter Group had shot down 112 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The unit knocked out more than 600 railroad cars and sank one destroyer and 40 boats and barges.

The cost was heavy. They lost about 150 men, who were either killed in combat or in accidents.

“We left 50 or 60 pals buried over in Italy and North Africa,” Sheppard said.

After the war, he worked for airlines and then returned to military aviation, working as a flight engineer. In the 1970s, while working with the Federal Aviation Administration, he moved to South Portland.

He remains proud of his Tuskegee ties.

“We were so successful, they never shut down our fighter squadron,” he said. “The Red Tails are still in business.”

Five years ago, Sheppard and five other Tuskegee Airmen visited the unit in Iraq.

“They wanted us to see what our old squadron was doing,” he said. “I spent eight days in a combat area over there.”

After all these years, he remains fascinated by aviation, he said.

“My whole life was around airplanes, starting when I was 13,” he said. “My wife used to say she wished to be born as an airplane. She would have gotten more attention.”

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