Tampa, Florida - He was one of the United States Air Force's first African-American four-star generals and he shared his story in front of a captive audience during a special Black History program Thursday afternoon.
Dozens of people attended the Tampa Bay Federal Agencies' event at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. It was held on the Dale Mabry Campus at 4001 West Tampa Bay Boulevard.
10 News Anchor Tammie Fields was honored to serve as the Mistress of Ceremony for the event.
But the real highlight of the event was the guest speaker, General Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton. Retired now, he was also one of the first African-American pilots with the Thunderbirds, and trained pilots at MacDill Air Force base back in the 1980's.
The Department of Defense says as a youngster, General Newton often stood in the fields of the family farm in Ridgeland, S.C., watching airplanes flying overhead but not thinking about being a pilot. At that time, military uniforms fascinated him more than airplanes.
"My second cousin was in the Army, and I always looked forward to him coming home in his uniform," Newton reflected. "I said, 'When I grow up, I really want to be like him.'"
His fascination with uniforms turned to airplanes at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
"They had an aviation program at Tennessee State; ROTC was mandatory at that time," said Newton, who worked his way through college on work-study programs. "The advanced part of Air Force ROTC had some flying involved, so I changed my major to aviation. I got flying as part of my major curriculum as well as part of ROTC. That's when I really got interested."
Graduating with a bachelor of science degree in aviation education, he was commissioned as a distinguished graduate through the ROTC program in 1966. Newton completed pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., in June 1967.
His interest in flying was also sparked in 1964, his sophomore year, when he saw the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team perform. He said he became consumed with a burning desire to be a Thunderbird. At the time, the team had never had an African-American pilot, but that didn't deter Newton.
"When I came into the Air Force, my goal was to become a Thunderbird pilot," he said. Three tryouts with three rejections didn't thwart his quest. "Roughly 10 years later, it happened. In the fall of 1974, as it turned out, I was the first African-American Thunderbird pilot."
He held several positions in the Thunderbirds, including narrator, slot pilot and right wingman.
Newton went on to become a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours in the T-37, T-38, F-4, F-15, F-16, C-12 and F-117 stealth fighter.
Newton left for Vietnam on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He said he was confused about going because "I wasn't sure whether the war was in Vietnam, or here in America."
Racial strife abound across the nation while Newton was fighting the air war in Southeast Asia. He said flying combat missions helped dispel negatives others tried to attach to black Americans. He flew 269 combat missions from Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, including 79 missions over North Vietnam.
"We in the military ... were no different from American society," he said. "What was going on in society was going on in the U.S. Air Force. ... The leadership buried its head in the sand ... They said, 'We don't have those problems in the United States Air Force', which was obviously wrong."
And before the war ended, the Air Force was forced to admit having racial problems because they were manifested by demonstrations and riots on bases, Newton noted.
"That's when we confronted the problems head-on, and I'm proud to say the Air Force took a leadership role in solving racial problems in the military," he said.
He later decided going to Vietnam had been the right decision. "It taught me many things. As a young second lieutenant, I grew up very quickly," Newton noted. "There was also a true realization that America is one of the greatest nations on Earth, and I was as much a part of America as anybody else."
That insight stimulated a desire to return home and enjoy "all the freedoms and opportunities America should offer to all of its citizens." He also vowed to help others recognize and take advantage of those freedoms and opportunities.
"Being in combat is certainly a difficult time," the general said. "There were missions I was scared on, but that's combat, and the things that help mature a young American, no matter who you are."
Newton told the crowd in Tampa that there is no other mechanism to prepare you for opportunities than an education. General Newton said, "It's a huge factor in leveling the playing field."
He also spoke about the importance of remembering history so it doesn't repeat itself. He talked about the dark days of slavery and the hope that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought.