LOMPOC, Calif. - Arthur Hicks had a childhood interest in air planes, but growing up poor in Atlanta, Georgia during the depression, making model planes was the most he could do.
"Cigar boxes and coping saws," Hicks recalls of the materials and tools he used to make the model planes. "My oldest brother taught me how to saw the tail and the wings and things."
Hicks graduated high school in 1940. He says when they could get him to stay in the class room, it was an accomplishment, but he was interested in technology. A recruitment ad on a post office wall changed his life.
"The war department needed mechanic trainees," Hicks said. "I said, 'Got nothin' else to lose. Do it!' And I applied and got it."
He had just enough money to get to Memphis, Tennessee for flight school. When he got there - on his last nickel - he was shocked to learn the school did not accept blacks. He took a job as a busboy until he made enough money to get to Tuskegee, Alabama where African American flying units were being trained.
"There could not be a better entry into a skilled career than I had," Hicks said. "Along with some other young men who were in the same type of predicament."
That predicament was segregation, and discrimination. Hicks grew up facing not only a lack of opportunity, but also the threat of violence because of the color of his skin. Growing up, he recalls watching in terror as a neighborhood friend was shot and killed.
"Seeing this young man, hole in his head where they had walked up on the school yard and shot him. It grabs me now," Hicks said, "Even today."
Even for pilots in training, acceptance did not come easily for the Tuskegee Airmen. They were given a big boost by the First Lady of the United States. Hicks recalls witnessing the historic moment on April 19, 1941.
"Eleanor Roosevelt was insistent on taking a ride because people said, 'Blacks can't fly airplanes. They're too dumb.' So she rode with our chief Anderson in this little yellow Piper Cub. When she got back she said, 'He flew alright as far as I'm concerned.'
"So Franklin Roosevelt knew when to back away and let her have her way, and she did," Hicks said.
Hicks did not see combat, but did become a skilled aircraft technician before completing pilot's training.
"I could run with the best of them," he said.
Hicks was in the Tuskegee Airman graduating class of May 1945, right around the time the German's surrendered.
"My buddy shot down two of those rascals," Hicks said.
After the war, Hicks stayed on at Tuskegee for more than a year as an instructor in the instrument school.
He calls Harry Truman the hero for African American Aviation. The President ended segregation in the military in 1948.
In all, Hicks spent 28 years in the Air Force, many of them as a missile guidance superintendent at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
He also served on the Lompoc School Board, and was a teacher at Cabrillo High School, Allan Hancock College, and Chapman University.
Lompoc honored Arthur Hicks as Man of the Decade 1990-2000. In 2015 he received the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation "Greatest Generation" award.