The Tuskegee Airmen
Meeting real life heroes and historical figures is not an every day occurrence, even in my line of work, and so given the great legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen it was a real honor and treat interviewing a handful of these men living in and around Omaha. Like most individuals of great achievement, they are both quite proud o what they did but also exceedingly humble about it. I did the story for the New Horizons on the tail end of a wave of recognition coming the Tuskegee Airmen’s way. More has followed since. It’s all well-deserved. On personal note, my own father, the late Leo M. Biga, was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 that flew in the 96th Squadron, 2nd Bomber Group, Fifteenth Air Force, and he attested to the fact that the escort fighters flown by Tuskegee Airmen, the famed Red Tails, saved his and his fellow airemen’s bacon on many an occasion during bomb runs over Europe. When I interviewed the Tuskegee veterans I didn’t know enough to give them my father’s whereabouts and assignments and air service dates to see if they might have been flying at the same time, on the same missions. I’d like to think they were.
The Tuskegee Airmen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
At the start, they were ordinary young black men of varied backgrounds. They came from around the country. Most were college graduates or undergrads. Some were just out of high school. They were drawn to “the experiment” by a desire to serve their country in World War II and, in so doing, help overturn racist attitudes. The experiment was the Army Air Corps black cadet training center at Tuskegee Institute, an historically black institution of higher learning. It was meant by supporters to demonstrate blacks were as capable as anyone and by detractors to reinforce minorities’ supposed inferiority in a then-segregated military and society.
As history now notes, the Tuskegee Airmen decisively proved blacks the equal of their white counterparts. More than 1,000 men graduated from the aviation school, including pilots, navigators and bombardiers. All were pioneers and trailblazers. In combat, flyers with the 332nd Fighter Group, including the 99th Fighter Squadron, became heroes, distinguishing themselves above all other U.S. flying units. Tuskegee fighter pilots never lost a single bomber to enemy fire in 200 escort missions over Europe. An unprecedented achievement.
So impressive a record that once skeptical bomber groups hotly lobbied to be escorted by these “Red Tail Angels,” so named for the red tail markings on their aircraft. The leader of the Tuskegee group, Col. Benjamin Davis, had emblazoned on his aircraft “By Request” — a reference to the many requests bomber groups made for the 332nd to cover them.
As the exploits of the Tuskegee flyers mounted, their reputation preceded them, even to Germany, where they were known as the “Black Bird Men.”
Now, some 60 years since World War II’s end, the ranks of Tuskegee Airmen grow thinner just as their status as national treasures looms ever larger. Their legacy is a testament to perseverance, loyalty, passion, talent and sacrifice. Their barrier-breaking contributions aided the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Their deeds “paved the path” for blacks in the military and other fields, said Air Force veteran Bobby McGlown, founder of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.’s local Alfonza Davis Chapter.
Robert Rose, an Air Force vet who entered the service long after the Tuskegee men made their mark, feels indebted to them. “I’m the benefactor of their labors and sacrifice. To accomplish what they accomplished with all of the hardships and rigors of segregation, racism and war, is just phenomenal.” Even though his career came in what was — theoretically — a fully-integrated military, Rose still met racism and is amazed how those who went before him endured what they did “without the force of law behind them.” He felt such gratitude that in 2002 he assumed the presidency of the Alfonza Davis chapter in order “to make sure their legacy is perpetuated. They’re my heroes. They’re my friends. And I’m willing to do whatever I can to make this organization something they can be proud of.”
His efforts are culminating this year in the local chapter hosting the 33rd Tuskegee Airmen national convention. It’s only right Omaha plays host to the August 3 through 8 event, as several Tuskegee Airmen call this place home. The city’s most decorated Tuskegee flyer, Alfonza Davis, for whom the local chapter is named, was Tech High valedictorian in the class of 1937 and, later, an Omaha University student. He went missing in action in 1944 and was declared presumed dead in ‘45. In all, at least seven Omahans trained in the Tuskegee military aviation program. All but one of the known native Nebraskan Tuskegee Airmen have passed away. A few other “originals,” as they’re referred to, have made Nebraska home after long military careers. One graduated from UNO. The stories of these men are told here:
Captain Alfonza Davis graduated the top of his flight class at Tuskegee and was the first black military aviator from Omaha to earn his wings. He scored the highest rating in Moving Target Marksmanship in his class and was chosen squadron leader. His first combat assignment was with the 302nd Fighter Squadron in Italy. Later, he was attached to Group Headquarters for the 332nd Fighter Group as its assistant group operations officer. The group, operating with the 15th Air Force, escorted bombers that struck objectives in Italy, France, Germany and many other European nations. His final assignment came as squadron commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron). He led one mission in which his flyers destroyed 83 German aircraft. On what proved to be his last flight, he piloted his P-51 “Mustang” on a reconnaissance sortie to Munich, when he was lost in overcast weather near the Gulf of Trieste and never heard from again.
Among his many awards and decorations are: the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross. He was credited with one aerial victory in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. He left behind a wife and brother.
Lt. Col. Charles Lane Jr.
Lt. Col. (Retired) Charles Lane, Jr.
One of 13 children born to Verna and Charles Lane in the black section of St. Louis known as “The Ville,” Charles Lane, Jr. was attending Harriett Beecher Stowe Teachers College when war broke out. He volunteered for the aviation cadet program rather than be drafted. “The draft at that time was not treating blacks very well,” he said. “They normally ended up in service units.” He was inspired to join the corps by a former high school classmate, Wendell Pruitt, who’d already made it through the program and was speaking at a war bond drive. “He gave us all insight into what to study for and how to apply ourselves, and a lot of us did. Out of 12 of us, eight passed the exam” that qualified them for training.
Oddly, the first black military aviators were mustered and trained down south, at places like Keesler Field in Biloxi. Miss., where their presence was least tolerated. “It seemed ironic to us, too, but that was politics in those days,” said Lane.
Out of Lane’s original class of 138 cadet candidates, 78 made it to the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., where they first learned to fly. The tough training there further weaned the class to 38. He said some very good men washed out, not because they couldn’t fly, but due to an unwritten quota system that passed a bare minimum flyers. Those that made it, like Lane, knew they must meet stringent standards. “We had the same curriculum as white cadets, but we held ourselves to higher standards,” he said, as instructors looked for “any excuse” to axe them.
Early flight training was with black instructors and primary training under the supervision of whites. “Some of them, of course, didn’t like our being there and let you know it. That got your attention,” he said. “But then there were others who were behind you and supportive. My instructor was one of those types. He said, ‘I can teach anybody to fly, and I want you to learn real fast.’ He was friendly.”
Lane joined the 99th Fighter Squadron in Ramitelli, Italy, near Foggia. He was 19 when he piloted a P-51 in combat. The P-51 was lighter and fleeter than the P-47 he trained in. “It was a very fanciful airplane,” he said. “Speedy. Maneuverable. Extensive strike range. All those things a fighter jock needs — it had them.” He was a wing man, meaning he protected “the shooters” whose wing he flew on.
He flew 26 missions escorting B-17s and B-24s on bombing runs. Escort missions took him as deep as Berlin. By the end of fighting in Europe, he said, the Germans’ “max effort” saw them throw up a barrage of fighters and anti-aircraft flak. He saw his flight leader and fellow St. Louis native, Hugh White, shot down in front of him while flying his wing. Another friend, Thurston Gaines, was shot down behind him. Both men bailed out and survived as POWs. White, whom the St. Louis Tuskegee chapter is named, became an attorney and Gaines a physician.
Others weren’t so fortunate. Lane said while he and his fellow flyers were proud of their sterling record of not losing a single bomber to enemy fire, they didn’t forget those lost in action. “We paid a price. Sixty-six of us were killed in action and 38 more ended up as prisoners of war. So, of the 450 pilots who saw combat, more than a hundred — or, in other words, every fifth pilot — was considered lost.”
He said their “by-the-book” commander, Col. Davis, was the reason black pilots were so disciplined in carrying out their bomber cover duty. “He told us, ‘You’re over here boys to protect the bombers.’ If a German fighter got two miles away, we left him alone. We broke off and came back and rejoined the formation. We didn’t stray out there and try to chase him. Our primary mission was to protect the bombers, and that’s the attitude we had.” Lane feels the ramrod straight Davis, who went through hell as a lone black West Pointer, developed the esprit de corps and high standards of the group. “We felt honored to have him around.” Plus, he said, Davis forever gained their allegiance by going up the chain of command to fight rigged reports meant to discredit the Tuskegee track record.
The program only continued, Lane said, due to the intervention of figures like Davis, who got Gen. George C. Marshall to listen to facts. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did her part by taking a much-publicized ride with a Tuskegee pilot. But public recognition for the flyers’ accomplishments was long denied. Lane recalls the 99th Fighter Squadron’s win in the 1949 national gunnery meet being unlisted in the record books until black servicemen raised hell. It took a decade to get it corrected. School history books made no mention of Tuskegee Airmen until quite recently. “My thought was we were the best kept secret of World War II,” he said.
After the war, Lane found to his dismay, as did his black comrades, “no change” on the racial front back home. “Well, we thought we were first class citizens in the air, second class citizens on the base and third class citizens outside the fence.” Undaunted, he made the military a 27-year career. He flew fighters, transports and the B-52 in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. He and his family settled here after assigned to SAC. From 1970 to 1992 he headed Greater Omaha Community Action (GOCA), an Omaha-based poverty program. He’s been active in the Civil Air Patrol.
Lt. Col. (Retired) Harrison “Harry” Tull
Reared by his grandparents on their Woodbury, NJ truck farm, Harrison Tull and his family were the only black folks for miles around. The racial harmony he knew growing up there would be severely tested in the service, when he was subjected to its harsh segregation practices and hostile policies. He’d already graduated from Wilberforce University (Ohio) — the first black college established north of the Mason Dixon Line — when the war erupted. While at college, where he majored in biology, chemistry and history, he’d heard about the black aviation cadet program. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, he volunteered. “I was always interested in flying. I used to make model airplanes out of wood,” he said.
Tull’s first several months in the service saw him bounce around from bombardier to gunnery to pilot training. He received his rated observer wings in 1944 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. His first operational assignment was with the 477th Bombardment Group out of Godman Field, KY to fly in the B-25.
Despite never going overseas in World War II, being in such an elite unit motivated he and his fellow officers to carry themselves with pride and panache. “The pride among Tuskegee Airmen has always been there. We dressed sharp. When we were in our pinks and greens (dress office uniforms) we used to say you could cut your finger on the creases in our pants. And when we marched, we marched without cadence.” Instead, the men kept count in their head.
In 1945 he was reassigned to Selma Army Air Field, La. for navigation training when he and other black officers were unceremoniously released from active duty for attending a restricted white officers club. He said the visit to the club proceeded without incident. “We had no problem with those officers and they had no problem with us. They even gave us chits so we could buy drinks. We had a good time.” The problem was with the bigoted base commander, who called Tull and his fellow officers on the carpet the next day. “He chewed us out.” The men didn’t take it lying down. “We had a fellow in the outfit by the name of Coleman Young, who later became mayor of Detroit. He said, ‘Colonel, may I make a statement?’ The colonel said yes. And Coleman rose and went up one side of him and down the other, and all the colonel could do was pull out his handkerchief and wipe his face because he was perspiring so bad. Well, 10 days later we were out of the service.”
It would not be the last time Tull faced discrimination in the military. In what turned out to be a 27-year Air Force career that saw him distinguish himself as a reconnaissance officer in the Korean War and as an electronic warfare officer in the Cold War, he found promotions slow to come and attitudes slow to change. For example, it took 11 years for this college graduate to make first lieutenant. And in what was supposed to be an integrated force, he ran head on into racism at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas. “They put me on a B-29 and the major who was the head of the crew said, ‘You can’t be on my crew because you’re the wrong color.’ So, they took me off and put another guy on. They put me with another crew, who voted on me. They were all from the north, except one, and they all voted to put me on the crew and that’s where I flew. We had a good crew, too.”
He ended his military service by commanding the 55th Electronic Intelligence Operations Squadron based at SAC. After his 1970 retirement he and his family remained in the area. The Bellevue resident taught biology in the Omaha Public Schools (at Tech and, later, at Northwest) and served as a counselor at Monroe Middle School. He’s a volunteer with several Bellevue organizations.
Lt. Col. (Retired) James Warren
Growing up in the bitter South, James Warren’s family felt the full, awful brunt of Jim Crow segregation and intimidation. At age two, the Gurley, Ala. native’s ailing father was refused a surgeon and operating room reserved for whites and was instead operated on by a general practitioner in a makeshift OR . “It was a botched appendicitis operation and he died on the operating table,” Warren said.
As a boy, Warren was “frightened to death whenever the Ku Klux Klan marched down the road in their white sheets. I’d run under the house and hide.” Racial division, he said, was “absolute, rigid, complete. In those days, segregation was very lethal. There were lynchings going on and things like that. My mother was desperate to protect her son. She was able to acquire a job as a live-in maid in Winnetka, Ill. She saved enough money to buy me a train ticket and sent for me.” He arrived in 1938 to culture shock and a new life. In Winnetka, a wealthy North Shore bedroom community of Chicago, he worked as “a house boy” for a young couple, doing all the cooking and cleaning. It made studying for school a chore, but it was worth it. “I ended up going to New Trier Township High School — one of the best schools in the country,” he said. It had everything. Until then, he’d “never seen a library” nor attended class longer than five months any school year.
He was working as a drugstore cowboy when he read an American Magazine article, I Wanted Wings, by Charles DeBow, one of the first black Tuskegee graduates. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could be anywhere close to flying an airplane. That was my inspiration to go for the top.”
Warren found “every level of the cadet training intense. You knew you had to be the best.” He and his mates were aware of “being very critically scrutinized” as the fate of the Tuskegee experiment rested on their shoulders. “Not only were we aware of it, we were proud of it. We enjoyed the challenge because we knew we could meet the challenge. All we needed was the opportunity and once we got the opportunity, the whole ball game was over.” It was also understood they carried the hopes of others. “There were thousands of young black Americans who wanted to serve their country in an elite group like the air corps. They were qualified, too. They just didn’t get the opportunity. We had to make sure our performance didn’t allow the government to claim blacks could not perform satisfactorily in the job.”
Still, attempts to humiliate black aviators continued. In 1945 Warren was part of an incident he wrote about in a book, The Tuskegee Airmen: Mutiny at Freeman Field. Seymour, Indiana. was home to Freeman Field, where he was among a group of black officers with the 477th Bombardment Group arrested for entering a whites-only officers club. He and 100 fellow officers made “a stand” by refusing to sign a form barring them from the club. The men were moved to Godman Field, KY to await court martials. Even though Gen. George Marshall had the men released before such drastic action took place, a reprimand on their service records remained — blocking any promotion — and was only deleted 50 years later.
While Warren and the others never made it overseas, their civil rights stand did “get the attention” of President Harry S. Truman, who, in 1948, signed executive order 9981 to begin integrating the armed forces. Warren went on to an impressive military career that saw him fly, as a navigator, 173 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. When he was not on active duty during peacetime, Warren worked as an architect. In 1964, he took advantage of then-Omaha University’s Bootstrap program to complete the college degree he’d never finished. After retiring from a 35-year military career that saw him win numerous honors, he was a personnel specialist for General Dynamics Corporation. He and his wife live in California. His book on the mutiny at Freeman Field is in its fifth edition from Conyers Publishing Co.
Lt. Col. (Retired) Paul Adams and Others
Greenville, SC native Paul Adams realized a long-held dream of flying a plane as a Tuskegee fighter pilot cadet in 1942. In 1943, he shipped overseas with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy. He was a P-40 “Warthog” jockey and later flew the P-39 Belaire Cobra while patrolling the Naples harbor. After the war his military service continued in various posts. In his 20-year career he served in nine major campaigns and received the Commendation medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. His final posting was as deputy base commander in Lincoln. After retiring from the service in 1963, he and his family remained in Lincoln, where he embarked on a teaching career with the Lincoln Public Schools, becoming one of its first black instructors.
Omahans Ralph Orduna, Edward W. Watkins, Lawrence King Sr., John L. Harrison Jr. and Woodrow F. Morgan and Council Bluffs native Clarence A. Oliphant were among the locals who made it through Tuskegee’s aviation training. All are gone now. A survivor who didn’t make the cut is Robert Holts, a Central High grad who said washing out of the pilot training program left him “very low…very morose. It was a very intense feeling of just wanting to be part of it. I still have that feeling today when I’m around Paul Adams, Chuck Lane and Harrison Tull.” Holts enlisted with five friends from Omaha, one of whom, the late Joe Carter, became an air crew member with the 477th, he said. Even though Holts didn’t make it as an airman, he was, as Lane put it, “behind us and understood us,” and contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, including serving in the base statistical control squadron at Godman Field, KY. Holts later worked for the IRS and the U.S. Postal Service.
Above all, the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of service. Service to country and community. For example, the local originals have kept giving back by speaking before school kids and other audiences. “They didn’t stop with their accomplishments in the military and rest on their laurels. They continued to open doors and to bridge that link between their experiences and the experiences of everyone that’s come behind them,” said Emerson Mungin, Jr., an Air Force vet and Omaha chapter historian. Chapter president Robert Rose said, “There are not a lot of heroes around for today’s youths to follow. Youths need to look to these guys as the examples, as opposed to the examples some seem to be following.”
The main site for the Tuskegee Airmen convention is Omaha’s Qwest Center. Many speakers and activities are on tap. A related exhibition, Tuskegee Airmen: African-Americans in World War II, is showing now through January 8, 2005 at the Strategic Air Command & Space Museum near Ashland, Neb. The exhibit includes artifacts from Nebraska’s own Tuskegee veterans. For Tuskegee event details, call 292-8912.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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