By JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS
(TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - In November 2011, Samuel M. Garrison Jr. was honored posthumously with his name featured on the new Watkins-Logan-Garrison Texas State Veterans Home.
Garrison died May 26, 2011, at age 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.
In the two years before his death, he signed autographs, attended receptions and accepted a mayor's proclamation, all in his honor.
To many, his persona seemed bigger than life when he appeared at various social events sporting a bright red jacket dripping with medals that represent valor and selflessness in the line of duty.
But sometimes things aren't always as they seem -- Garrison was not a Tuskegee pilot, officer or war hero, according to a team of researchers, who spent years investigating his claims.
"We've not been able to find that he was part of the program at all," said Marv Abrams, president of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., San Antonio chapter. "As it stands, we collectively have nothing to substantiate him."
Amid local publicity surrounding his reputation as a hero aviator, curiosity grew about whether Garrison, whose name seems to escape official military databases, was all that he portrayed.
He wore colonel's wings when he claimed to be a captain and told stories about being a pilot and single-handedly taking 10 enemy planes out of commission -- an unheard of tally among those who served in the Tuskegee organization.
Military records detailing service member rankings, completed missions and medal recipients have no mention of his name.
Equally puzzling to some is the fact the Tuskegee organization, the group he claimed as his own, has no records of him. And no one remembers him.
In the months following his death, the Tyler Morning Telegraph -- in response to public inquiries -- launched an exhaustive review of military and public records in an attempt to verify his claims of service.
The newspaper spoke with people who knew him, including the wife he married late in life, as well as Tuskegee researchers who specialize in uncovering details about those who served the nation.
"I always had questions about him," his widow Willie Garrison said. "There are a lot of things I didn't know."
By all local accounts, Garrison was a charming Southern gentleman, but history reveals his role in the war appears altogether different than his public persona.
There are no documented records listing him as a pilot or a captain, the newspaper found.
And military records do not indicate that Garrison was officially awarded any of the elite medals he claimed: a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars or a Philippine Liberation Medal.
Photographs of Garrison at local social events show him wearing a variety of medals: Legion of Merit, Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation, Air Force Commendation Medal, European African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and a Civilian Service in Vietnam Medal.
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.
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, helping formulate a plan to build a new jail, but he made no public claims of having a storied past as an airman.
Mrs. Garrison, more than 25 years his junior, said she didn't know a lot about her husband when they married in 2003 -- they met in the soup aisle at Super 1 Foods and married less than a year later.
She said her husband never mentioned his military past until Barack Obama was elected president, and Garrison expressed a desire to attend the 2009 inauguration, alongside his peers, the Tuskegee Airmen.
"I didn't know anything about it," she said. "I asked his daughter about (being an airman), and she said, 'Yes, he was.'"
A month later, the North Tenneha Church of Christ held a recognition event in his honor for Black Heritage Month, an event that prompted proclamations from Tyler and Smith County officials, marking Feb. 25, 2009, as "Capt. Sam Garrison Day."
Numerous local events and recognitions would follow, as would inquiries about his credentials, according to his wife.
"I would ask him when it (questions) came up," she said. "He got real upset ... I just let him talk. There were a lot of things I didn't understand."
'A LOT OF DETAILS'
When the United States entered World War II, its military bases remained segregated. The Army and Air Corps operated together as the Army Air Corps.
Black Army Air Corps members trained at one base, the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Ala. The "Red Tails," as they came to be known, served valiantly in World War II, but in the days of segregation their contributions largely escaped honor and public accolades.
Tuskegee Airman Inc. maintains a database of those individuals, more than 16,000 names in all, ranging from pilots and bombers to maintenance and cooks.
Sources for the database include a variety of sources, including military archives and documents located by committees of researchers.
"Everyone who went through the Tuskegee experience between 1941 and 1949 is in our database," said Maggie Thomas, administrative director with Tuskegee Airman, Inc.'s National Office. "It also includes those who were washed out - it contains a lot of details."
Names omitted from the database can be added if there is documented proof of their service, usually a set of government military orders. Records can be obtained through the National Archives in St. Louis by either the service member or certain family members.
Those who are proven to be authentic are called a "documented original Tuskegee Airman."
The Tyler Morning Telegraph asked the organization to research its archives for evidence supporting Garrison's statements concerning his service. The organization, however, already was aware of Garrison.
George Hardy, an original Tuskegee Airman and chairman of the Harry A. Sheppard Research Committee, said Garrison's name does not appear in the Tuskegee database.
"There may be a few names missing from our database and as such, we request that individuals submit their personal documentation. However, the listing of pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee Army Flying School is complete," Hardy said by email. "Additionally, we have a complete listing of pilots who served with the 99th and 332nd overseas. Mr. Garrison's name is not on either listing."
Almost 1,000 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Airman program, but only 355 went to war, records show.
Others were assigned to conduct bombing operations and never made it into war.
Garrison claimed to have received a Silver Star, and photographs show him wearing one, but there are no records that he received it as an award, Hardy said.
"Our records show that only one Silver Star was awarded to a Tuskegee Airman, our commander, Col. B.O. Davis," Hardy said.
Retired Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson, national president of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., said the organization occasionally encounters instances in which someone will claim honors they never earned.
"Sometimes they are outed in the press; other times someone will contact the Tuskegee Airmen," he said. "We do an investigation and find out."
If it is realized that someone promotes themselves publicly as an airman when they are not, the organization tries to set the record straight.
"We'll contact the individual and tell them to cease the behavior," Johnson said, noting the organization does not actively seek out those individuals.
Just because an individual has a medal does not mean they earned it or that it is an original, officials said, noting anyone may purchase replicas for about $40, sometimes less.
Tuskegee Airmen were honored collectively in 2007 by President George. W. Bush, who awarded the unit with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Many individuals wear the award, but it was not among those Garrison typically wore on his red coat.
Tuskegee officials said the organization is continually conducting research to protect the integrity of the data.
"They (records) are accurate considering they are more than 70 years old," Johnson said, noting membership in the organization is a separate matter from the database. "You can be a documented Tuskegee Airman and not be a member of our organization."
For some, ensuring accuracy also seems to be a matter of principle.
"We think it's so unfair to the people who worked on the airfield," Ms. Thomas said. "We know there are people out there who want to ride their coattails. That is not acceptable."
His widow says there was a lot of mystery surrounding her husband of seven years.
"He was a good person, but there were things I didn't understand about him," she said. "When we got married, I never knew he was a Tuskegee Airman. When President Obama's inauguration came around, when that was getting ready to start, he said we were going."
Mrs. Garrison said they did attend the January 2009 inauguration but stood outside in the crowd, along with everyone else, before they were eventually allowed indoors.
Questions came up then about his background, and Mrs. Garrison said she wondered why things weren't adding up.
After their church honored him for being a Tuskegee Airman, it seemed to start a chain of events in his honor -- at Texas College, the Historical Aviation Memorial Museum and others.
Garrison wanted to look like the other Tuskegee Airmen, so she purchased him a red jacket to wear.
He began collecting medals to put on it, telling his wife the originals had been lost while moving.
"The medals and things, he got a lot of those online. He would say, 'I had that. I had that,' and then he would write it down and order it," she said.
But questions persisted about the legitimacy of his stories, which apparently became increasingly adventurous and colorful as time went on.
He enjoyed reading history and spent hours watching the History Channel, his widow said.
In his last years, Mrs. Garrison said she noticed behavioral changes.
"He was having a lot of problems before he died," she said. "He started forgetting things. He was beginning to be extremely jealous ... he ran out and got a convertible and had me sign for it. He got me in a lot of financial problems."
Mrs. Garrison said she suspected her husband was being affected by Alzheimer's disease, but he died before there was an official diagnosis.
His daughter retrieved his belongings shortly after he died, so there is nothing material at hand to substantiate his past, Mrs. Garrison said.
"My mother always said, 'Whatever is done in the dark will come to light,'" she said. "Now that this has come to light, he's dead and gone. We still don't know anything about it."
Lorran Garrison-Tracy, 37, of California, is Garrison's daughter.
She has some of her father's military records, but she said they are complex and difficult to understand without expert assistance.
When reached Thursday by phone, Ms. Tracy didn't seem surprised over the doubts about her father.
"I've been actually waiting for this phone call for a while now," she said. "I'm surprised people didn't do their due diligence about him. I grew up believing all the stories he told me. He wasn't the person he said he was. He wasn't the father I thought he was. ... I'm very shocked to learn who he is."
Ms. Tracy believes her father was in the service at some point, citing records from the Veterans Administration she obtained while conducting her own research into his past.
Ms. Tracy said she's not certain how long her father actually served in the military -- he claimed to be a Tuskegee Airman but was transferred to a unit for American Indians.
She said she grew up hearing his colorful war stories, which seemed to change a lot each time they were told.
One of the few tales that stayed consistent over the years, she said, was his account of thwarting a theft while standing guard duty.
Supposedly, Garrison caught two white males stealing oil, and he shot one in the buttocks.
He said the matter went to trial, and the pair was cleared, presumably because of their race, but there are no records found that support his story or the trial, Ms. Tracy, a former law student, said.
She knows Garrison worked in Vietnam building bridges during the Vietnam War. Ms. Tracy said her mother was his secretary who later became his wife.
Ms. Tracy said her parents eventually divorced, and her father later moved to Tyler to be with a new love, someone he knew before his last wife.
"It's been an intentional journey to come to grips with who my father was," Ms. Tracy said. "I've been very much disappointed."
For all that he wasn't, he was a loving father, who instilled a love of history and politics, Ms. Tracy said.
"I know my father is turning over in his grave right now, being revealed by someone other than me," she said. "He wasn't the best of fathers, but he kept a roof over our head and food on the table. He just wasn't the person he said he was."
Abrams said the Tuskegee organization first received inquiries about Garrison about three years ago, triggering the research.
"As I reached out to actual experts, they were never able to substantiate any of his stories," Abrams said. "His personal accounts couldn't be connected. When I asked Mr. Garrison about his documents, it was a very interesting conversation."
Garrison was unable to provide even the most basic information or service records explaining his role. Abrams said.
Tuskegee officials said sometimes individuals entered training and encountered an obstacle that caused them to be removed from the program, but Garrison wasn't among them.
The organization works to dispel inaccurate information, but it's not an easy process, Abrams said.
"As they get older, the stories get embellished," Abrams said, explaining the amount of research required to quash the misinformation grows as the stories get more and more colorful.
"The last piece he gave me that made things bad was that he shot down a German aircraft," Abrams said.
Researchers painstakingly combed through documents and databases associated with every assignment, mission encounters, training specialty, honor and anything that could place him at the location but came up empty-handed.
Officials scoured records for pilots, cadets, graduates, aviators as well as other positions in administration, finances, professional and support services.
After three years of searching, Garrison's claims appear to be just talk, officials said.
"We do have individuals with questionable stories, but his is more blatant to the degree in which he was able to use them (war stories) to integrate himself into history and in that community," Abrams said. "I don't want to say it's a farce -- right now I have absolutely nothing that substantiates him."