Last Member of Famed Tuskegee Airmen From Nebraska Dies at 96

Feb. 16, 2021, 11:22 a.m. ·

Robert Holts with friend Robert Rose in Bellevue, Nebraska in 2018. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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The last known member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen from Omaha has died. Robert Holts was 96 years-old when he died Friday and had spent his final years at an assisted living center in Bellevue. It’s been more than 70 years since Holts ended his military service, but he’ll forever be a part of a group of World War II pilots and support personnel who broke color barriers in the 1940’s.

When we spoke to Robert Holts a few years ago, his military service was a distant memory, a lifetime ago. At that time, he was 93-years-old and had left the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1946. Sitting at a table in his room at a Bellevue assisted living center, Holts searched through the past, pulling out snippets of his time with the military, service that started in 1942. At that time, he had no idea he was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

“Didn’t know anything about the Tuskegee Airmen,” Holts said. “That name had not been attached to them.”

It was only later, long after World War II that the 16,000 or so mostly black pilots and support staff became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The pilots trained at an Army air field in Tuskegee, Alabama. They became known for escorting bombers in World War II, protecting them from German fighter planes. Holts wanted to be a pilot, but things didn’t turn out that way.

“When I saw all of those cadets down there, I knew that there was too many people down there for them to be making that many pilots,” Holts said. “After four months, I was washed out of the program. When I washed out, I was very discouraged.”

Holts became a corporal and ended up at Godman Army Air Field in Kentucky and worked as a draftsman, putting together maps for his commanders who led the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, later to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. That short stint qualified him as a member of the group. He finally felt like he was part of something.

“By having been involved with it that much, I felt like I was part of America,” he said.

Although he wasn’t around many of the pilots, Holts heard stories about their missions in World War II and their bravery. They were known for staying with the aircraft they were escorting and not chasing enemy fighters for aerial kills. That strategy led to some of the lowest loss rates of the entire war.

“Once they were overseas performing their duties and some of those things that I saw on the national news, I knew what they were doing,” he said. “Some of the people in my class were brothers of one of the Tuskegee Airmen. They would give us information as to what they were doing over there.”

It wasn’t until after Holts left the military that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July of 1948, ending racial discrimination in the military. Before that, black airmen and soldiers were segregated from their white counterparts. Holts says that treatment clouded his military service.

“As a young person, when I was in the service, I knew that there was a difference in the way that I was treated and I had to accept all of that and I did up to a point where I just didn’t want to be in the service any longer after I washed out of the program because it didn’t seem fair,” he said.

Holts was the last known living member of the Tuskegee Airmen in Nebraska. Robert Rose spent almost 30 years in the Air Force and was a close friend of Holts. He was also president of the Alfonza Davis Tuskegee Airmen Nebraska Chapter, one of 56 chapters nationwide.

“It’s been a long time getting the recognition and even today, I think that there are folks out there who don’t realize that they’re Tuskegee Airmen or that they’re heroes, because the word just hasn’t gotten around or it just has not soaked in,” Rose said.

Robert Holts went on to have a long career with the postal service in Detroit and later moved back to Nebraska. He would sometimes wear his Tuskegee Airmen cap, but didn’t talk much about his military service in his final years. It was a memory he’d tucked away.

“It was an honor to be an American and to be a member of a group such as that. I’ll never forget it,” he said.

It was an honor Holts carried quietly until the end, more than 70 years after he was a part of one of the most iconic groups in World War II.