City, State Officials React To Tuskegee Distortion
By JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS
A Texas General Land Office official said he and others were stunned Friday to learn that a celebrated Tuskegee pilot whose name appears on the agency's new flagship veterans home in Tyler doesn't appear to be a war hero after all.
Samuel M. Garrison Jr.'s last name is expected for the moment to remain on the Watkins-Logan-
Garrison Veterans Home un-til the Texas Veterans Land Board has a chance to review the matter and act accordingly, officials said Friday.
The autograph-signing Garrison -- who seemed bigger than life in his bright red medal-laden jacket -- died about a year ago at 88 as a celebrated war hero, a famed Tuskegee P-38 fighter pilot who told mesmerizing stories of long-ago dog fights and downed enemy aircraft.
He was honored posthumously in November by having his name added to the entry of the veterans facility, but researchers with Tuskegee Airmen Inc. found no evidence supporting his claims of being a pilot, officer or war hero as he claimed.
His name also seems to escape official military databases and his wife said the military medals he wore were purchased online.
State officials, upon learning of the misrepresentation, don't plan a knee-jerk reaction in removing his name from the veterans home.
"We're going to look into it and do our own due diligence," said Jim Suydam, press secretary for Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson's office. "The staff will present the results of its research at that time. We want to find out the facts."
Tyler's new veterans home is the agency's eighth state veterans home, officials said.
"It's the best one we've got," Suydam said. "It's a new model for long-term care. ... This is our flagship home."
Military records indicate Garrison joined the Air Corps in 1942 in Los Angeles.
He said he received training at Tuskegee Army Air Corps in Tuskegee, Ala., serving the Air Force Unit 99th Pursuit Squadron and Air Force 332nd Fighter Group.
But Marv Abrams, president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., San Antonio chapter, said the organization started researching him about three years ago and has "nothing to substantiate him."
George Hardy, an original Tuskegee Airman and chairman of the Harry A. Sheppard Research Committee, said Garrison's name does not appear in any the Tuskegee databases, which contain the names of more than 16,000 people associated with the program as well as those who didn't complete it.
Suydam said any information his office discovers about Garrison will be closely scrutinized and presented to the Veterans Land Board, part of the general land office, when it meets in July.
He said the board selected Garrison for the honor of having his name on the facility as a gesture of support to the community that nominated him.
The nomination form was accompanied by some newspaper articles, but no official records verifying his service, Suydam said.
State officials don't predict Garrison's now questionable legacy will detract from the facility itself, calling the situation "unprecedented."
"Everybody here is shaking their heads," Suydam said. "We obviously didn't know as much as we thought we did."
People who seemed to know Garrison best, his wife of seven years and his adult daughter from another marriage, said he was a loving husband and father, but his past was filled with mystery.
"He wasn't the person he said he was," Garrison's daughter, Lorran Garrison-Tracy, 37, of California, said Thursday. "I grew up believing all the stories he told me."
Garrison, a native of Baton Rouge, La., moved to Tyler about 1994, telling others he had experience in civil engineering.
He was active in local politics but made no public claims of having a storied past as an airman until Barack Obama was elected president and Garrison announced he was a Tuskegee Airman and wanted to join his peers at the 2009 inauguration.
His widow, Willie "Cookie" Garrison, said they stood outside with everyone else after questions were raised about his credentials.
In his last years, his behavior grew increasingly erratic and he began showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, his widow said.
Community reactions to his tarnished legacy varied Friday from sadness to disbelief and even relief.
"I'm a little disappointed today because we were all so proud of what Mr. Garrison was to our community," said Dr. Kirk Calhoun, president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. "It's sad, but the truth has to come out."
The health science center lobbied for the veterans home and donated land for the cause, records show.
City of Tyler officials seemed equally stunned by the revelations about Garrison.
"It's just so sad, especially when there are men and women who serve our country with value each and every day," said Mayor Barbara Bass, who joined Smith County officials in February 2009 issuing a proclamation for "Sam Garrison Day" to commemorate Black History Month.
Tyler External Relations Director Susan Guthrie said the city may reexamine the tradition of issuing proclamations just because someone asks.
"We're going to take a hard look at the process," she said. "We certainly don't want to burden everyone because of the actions of someone who was dishonest, but it's a good idea to take a look at it."
Tyler and Smith County officials said there are no plans to rescind the proclamations.
"They (proclamations) don't stay on the books," Adrienne Graham, Smith County spokeswoman, said. "It's not something that's being actively celebrated. ... It was a one-day event."
Carolyn Verver, Historic Aviation Memorial Museum board president, said Friday's news about Garrison confirmed long-held suspicions.
"He was never a member of our museum," he said. "He used to come down here, multiple times. The first time he came, he was asking to borrow some medals, specifically he wanted to borrow a Purple Heart ... we told him we don't loan out our things."
Garrison continued to visit the museum but refused to fill out the necessary paperwork to join.
His stories always were mesmerizing but rarely connected accurately with history, fueling curiosity among other World War II veterans that something was amiss, Mrs. Verver said.
Those suspicions were later confirmed when Garrison offered to help out with a fundraiser benefiting the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. The museum donated the proceeds in Garrison's name and received an unexpected response from the organization.
"They (Tuskegee Airmen Inc.) didn't know who he was," Mrs. Verver said. "We just backed off. There are a lot of veterans associated with the museum who have things in their possession that prove who they are ... Sam never did. We always had our suspicions ... there were certain things that just didn't connect."
Tyler World War II veteran Art Elchek, 88, who served as petty officer first class in the U.S. Navy, said most of the men who served in that era don't brag about it.
"I wasn't a hero, I was a survivor, but I knew many heroes," he said. "No one really wanted to talk about anything. Hey, we had a job to do, and we did it, period. There were tough times sure ... but it was our duty."
Garrison, like other veterans who embellish war stories, may have been looking for attention, Elchek said.
"Hey, we didn't get a heck of a lot of attention, but that was OK," he said of response. "We survived."