Wallace “Wally” Higgins of Alfred Station, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, died Wednesday at the age of 92.
Born on Nov. 11, 1925, Higgins was raised on a small farm in Kendall, Orleans County.
The U.S. Army recruited Higgins on Dec. 10, 1943, before he could graduate high school. Higgins reported to Fort Dix, N.J., and then he was sent to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training and aptitude testing. It was in the Deep South where he was exposed for the first time to racial segregation and discrimination.
As a result of his skin color and proficiencies, Higgins was selected to join the Tuskegee Airmen experiment in Alabama. He was assigned to Class 44K and trained in pre-flight at Tuskegee Institute.
During training, Higgins became seriously ill, and his training was delayed. After recovering, he was reassigned to Class 45A and completed his primary flight training, including solo runs in the P-17 Stearman. Higgins spent 11 months at Tuskegee before a downturn in the war in Europe resulted in less pilot training at Tuskegee. He was then transferred to the 1909th Aviation Engineering Battalion and served in Saipan and Okinawa, building roads, airfields and ammunition storage buildings.
Higgins was a sergeant in charge of an all-black, 30-man platoon. While in Okinawa, he was honorably discharged Dec. 5, 1945, but immediately re-enlisted Dec. 6.
On March 17, 1947, Higgins received his final honorable discharge as a staff sergeant with Squadron F, 3505th Army Air Force. For his military service, Higgins earned the World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal and Army Good Conduct Medal.
Higgins lost his only sibling, Donald Warner Higgins, to World War II; Donald served in the Pacific Theater as a U.S. Navy Seabee.
Wally was honored at a Veterans Day 2016 ceremony in Geneseo in which the 91-year-old former Alfred University professor received the Congressional Gold Medal collectively awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. The ceremony was held at the National Warplane Museum and attended by members of his family, some 200 guests and a Patriot Guard formation riding motorcycles.
“I don’t cry easily, but I do today,” Higgins said at the time.
It was Higgins’ second Congressional Gold Medal award, having received one in 2015 that was collectively awarded to World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol, which he joined in high school. He was also inducted into the New York Senate Veterans Hall of Fame in 2015.
“It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Wally Higgins, a decorated World War II veteran and a beloved member of our community," says state Sen. Catharine Young. “Although he lived during a time when racial discrimination and segregation were still terrible realities in many parts of the United States, his patriotism never wavered and he willingly risked his life for our nation. … America has lost one of its true heroes. However, his legacy endures and his spirit lives on in our hearts.”
U.S. Tom Reed, R-Corning, says, “Wally was a hero both during war in the air and at home on the ground … he should be remembered for his bravery and willingness to serve his country and community up until his final days here on earth.”
Upon returning to Kendall after his military service, Higgins completed his diploma at Jefferson High School in Rochester. Because of his interest in design, he applied and was accepted at the state College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ceramic design in 1952.
While a student there, he dated Norma Miller, and they were married Aug. 18, 1951, on campus. A 1951 alumna of Alfred, Norma served as archivist for special collections at the university from 1964 until her retirement in 1987.
Norma died in December 2015 after a long illness — the couple was married nearly 63 years, raising four children, Don, Verne, Laurie and Sharon.
Higgins never left the field of industrial ceramic design. He was a model and mold maker at Glidden Pottery in Alfred for five years, then became a technical specialist and later an associate professor at the College of Ceramics, retiring in 1985 as professor emeritus.
In addition to subsequent ceramic-related business ventures, the Higginses made many trips overseas — including Egypt, Morocco, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Israel and Zambia — teaching and providing assistance in industrial ceramic design, ceramic manufacturing equipment and model and mold making. The couple also held several exhibitions of their custom clocks, sculptures and paintings.
Higgins has also spent decades in public service with many organizations in Allegany County, including the Alfred Lions Club, Alfred Station Volunteer Fire Department, Allegany County Office for the Aging Advisory Council and Allegany County Senior Foundation.