WILLIAM H. ACCOO
SALEM - William H. Accoo, Tuskegee Airman, who faced racial segregation in the U.S. military but served with distinction as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airman during World War II and later broke barriers as Salem's first black councilman in the turbulent 1960s, died Wednesday at his home. He was 93.
Leading a quiet life of service to his country and love for his family, Accoo, known as "Bill," came to symbolize in the midst of segregation the equality of men, through a war his own Army didn't want him fighting. The Tuskegee Airmen were the nation's first black military pilots.
He was the only known Tuskegee Airman living in Salem County, according to Bob Boon, the county Veterans' Services Officer.
Though it is not the celebrity that touched his life or the accolades which cover his home's walls which his wife, Ida Accoo, will remember him for, but for the simple and profoundly pious man that he was.
"I'm going to miss him. His kindness for me, his love for me. He was a wonderful son and a wonderful husband," Ida Accoo said Thursday. "He lived a good life. After his faith in God, his love for me came next."
There are only approximately 300 documented Tuskegee Airmen still living, Boon said, out of a class of 994 that trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from 1942 through 1946. Because the U.S. military was segregated, black airmen couldn't serve along side their white counterparts so the airmen who were trained at Tuskegee served in their own group.
William Accoo fought with distinction for the 332nd Fighter Group, 99th Fighter Squadron during its World War II campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
For his service he was bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor last year here in Salem by Congressman Frank LoBiondo. It is the country's highest civilian honor.
The 332nd paved the way for an integrated military through an exemplary record of service, despite the popular belief at the time that black men lacked the ability to fly or fight in a theater of war.
Known as the "Redtail Angels" because of the crimson paint adorning the planes' back wingtips, the 332nd set an unprecedented standard by flying 200 of its 205 bomber escort missions without the loss of a single bomber to enemy aircraft. It is the best record of any escort group.
With his death, William Accoo leaves more than his wife of over 61 years and the family they raised behind. There remains a legacy.
It is manifested at the Salem City limits, where permanent signs erected in March next to the welcoming marquee read that this town is the proud home of William Accoo, recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
He received the medal last year at the Old Courthouse in Salem from LoBiondo after poor health and a distaste for travel saw him miss a grand ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., before President Bush and both houses of Congress.
"I was privileged to meet Bill and Ida Accoo last spring when I presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his bravery and efforts during World War II," LoBiondo said Thursday.
"As crew chief of the 332nd Fighter Group, Staff Sergeant Accoo served his nation with honor and represented the Tuskegee Airmen with distinction. With the passing of Bill Accoo, the community of Salem and the nation has lost a true American hero."
A lifelong Salem City resident, William Accoo was drafted into the service in 1942. Upon his honorable discharge in 1945, he worked for A.W. Davis Lumber Co. for 26 years until the company went out of business. He worked at Mannington Mills until he retired in 1980.
He met the then Ida Mitchell when she was a popular school teacher in town, experiencing the same kind of segregation he fought through the military. They married and raised their family here.
They would have celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary on Sunday. "I'm going to miss everything about him," Ida Accoo said. "The times he would ask me 'Ida, is there anything I can do for you?' The times he would put his hand on my head and say 'my girl.'"
In the community, William Accoo was a dedicated member of the Mt. Hope United Methodist Church in Salem, overseeing its restoration after a fire destroyed the sanctuary and Sunday School room several years ago.
He became the first commander of the American Legion Post 444, and in 1963 was sworn in as the city's first black councilman, a position he held until 1966. He served on the mayor's task force and advocated for the Community Action Group.
"Being a councilman was a real highlight for him," Ida Accoo said. "There wasn't a lazy bone in his body."
He served on the United Way of Salem County Board of Directors for 21 years and organized a youth group called the Valiants. Ida Accoo said the world has lost a talented and good man.
Services will be held on Tuesday at Mt. Hope at noon, followed by burial at the Salem County Veterans Cemetery on Route 45 in Pilesgrove Township.
Published in the Today's Sunbeam on August 29, 2008
S SGT US ARMY AIR FORCES
Ida Mitchell Accoo
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