Louis R. Purnell; Member of WWII’s Tuskegee Airmen
Louis Rayfield Purnell Sr., 81, a captain in the Army’s World War II all-black 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, died Friday in Washington, D.C.
Purnell, a native of Snow Hill, Md., began flight school as a student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After the War Department reluctantly allowed blacks to become pilots, he earned the wings of a military flier in 1942. Purnell, who served in North Africa and Italy, reached the rank of captain and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters.
After the war, Purnell became a speech therapist and then worked in the quartermaster general’s office before joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1961. After working in the Museum of Natural History’s paleobiology and oceanography divisions, he moved to the Air and Space Museum as a technician and later a curator.
When he retired in 1985, Purnell donated his wings, scarf and other mementos of his wartime experience to the Smithsonian.