Edited by AZI Staff
Dr. Thurston L. Gaines, Jr., an Original Tuskegee Airmen and former resident of Litchfield Park and Sun City West passed away in Murrieta, California on Saturday, December 31. Dr. Gaines was one of the founding members of the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. charted in Phoenix in 2006. At 94 years old, his many achievements almost equaled his years of life. His crowning jewel, however, was marrying his wife of nearly 73-years, Jacqueline K. Gaines. Dr. Gaines is survived by his three loving children (Beverly, Terry and William) and six grandchildren. He recently moved to Murrieta to be near family as his and Jacqueline’s health begin to decline.
Dr. Gaines was born, raised, and attended school in Freeport, Long Island, NY. He was a gifted youth and enjoyed sports in high school. As an African American, he was denied college preparatory courses; however, upon high school graduation, Thurston received the prize for the highest grade in government and citizenship. He earned a scholarship to Drake University in Iowa, but chose to apply for Howard University in Washington, DC. He was accepted on a student-work program scholarship that allowed him to work during the day and take algebra and geometry at night school.
When the United States was drawn into WW II, Thurston knew he “didn’t want to carry a rifle.” After hearing about the “Tuskegee Airmen Experiment” he sought entrance into the program. In 1943, he was accepted into the all Negro Cadet Corps at Tuskegee Army Airfield and graduated a year later as a 2/Lt Flight Officer in Class 44-G. Lt. Gaines was then assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron and deployed to Europe in January 1945 where he flew the P-51 Mustang. Upon joining “The Red Tails” of the 332nd Fighter Group, the late Lt. Col. (Retired) Chuck Dryden (AKA “A-Train”) became his combat flight instructor. The late Col (Retired) William Campbell, also with ties to Arizona, was Lt. Gaines combat flight leader.
Gaines began flying combat missions against the German Luftwaffe in February 1945. On April 15, 1945, he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on his 25th combat mission over Erding, Germany. He was captured by the Germans and held prisoner in two German jails and one prison camp before being liberated in June 1945 by General George S. Patton’s 14th Armored Division. Gaines received numerous military honors including the Purple Heart and ultimately the Congressional Gold Medal presented in Washington, DC by President Gorge W. Bush in March 2007.
After serving his country with honor and distinction for four years, Lt. Gaines left the military and returned to civilian life. He enrolled at New York University and graduated in 1948. A year later he entered Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tenn. After graduation, he spent seventeen years as a board-certified general surgeon in Long Island, N.Y. Dr. Gaines transitioned into administrative medicine for the next decade and served as a hospital administrator and as the Medical Examiner for Nassau County, N.Y. He later served as medical director of a Veterans Hospital in Massachusetts.
In 1988, after more than 45 years of service to his country in the military and in the medical profession, Dr. Gaines and his wife, Jacqueline, retired to Missouri City, Texas. They later moved to Arizona. After nine years of retirement, Dr. Gaines decided to return to work as a phlebotomist and as an Adjunct College Professor in Naturopathic Medicine. In addition, he completed several computer courses at a local junior college and served as substitute teacher in mid-school. He continued until failing health dictated that he discontinue working.
Throughout his life, Dr. Gaines was a man who demanded perfection of himself, or as close as any human could attain it. He had a passion and appreciation for the game of golf, and he had a vocabulary and vast knowledge that spanned the pages of Webster’s and Encyclopedia Britannica combined. He was a captivating and eloquent speaker who motivated listeners of all ages with stirring accounts of his life experiences. Anyone who had the privilege of meeting or knowing Dr. Thurston L. Gaines, Jr. experienced the joy and pleasure of encountering a great American hero. He now soars with the Lonely Eagles!