Tuskegee Airmen share tales of war and courage

March 31, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The pilots and the ground crews of the U.S. Army Air Corps' 332nd Fighter Group waged two battles during World War II, one against the Germans in the skies over Europe and the other against the institutionalized racism of their own country.

"They had to fight for the opportunity to fight the enemy," Letterkenny Army Depot Commander Col. Robert Swenson said Thursday in introducing three members of the unit, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

"The Negro is low on the scale of human evolution ... profoundly superstitious ... by nature subservient," Eugene J. Richardson Jr. said, reading from a secret 1925 U.S. Army War College report. It was that kind of thinking the blacks had to overcome to get the Army to establish the "experimental" 99th Fighter Squadron, the first squadron of what became the 332nd Fighter Group.

"It was supposed to be an experiment to prove that black men could not be fighter pilots," Richardson told an audience of about 100 people at the Family Traditions Lighthouse restaurant. It took a lawsuit by Howard University student Yancey Williams against what was then the War Department to compel the government to establish a pilot training school for blacks in the rigidly segregated military, he said.


Trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the first class of five pilots graduated in March 1942, but Richardson said it was not until 1943 that the 99th got an overseas assignment in North Africa and later in Italy.

"Commanders in Europe would not take a black squadron," Richardson said.

From 1943 to the war's end in 1945, the 99th and the 332nd compiled an enviable combat record, destroying or damaging more than 250 Luftwaffe aircraft in dogfights. In the ground attack role, the unit known as the "Red-Tail Angels" for the markings on their P-47 and P-51 fighters, damaged or destroyed another 273 enemy aircraft, along with trains, barges, motor transport and even a destroyer, according to a unit history.

The 332nd's greatest claim to fame may be that no Allied bombers were shot down while under its protective umbrella. Lt. Col. John L. Harrison Jr. said 200 of the 332nd's 1,578 missions were escorting B-24 and B-17 bombers manned by white crews.

"We saved a whole lot of guys' lives. There were 10 men in each bomber," said Harrison, who stayed in the military after the war, retiring from the Air Force after 22 years.

"I loved flying so much, I would have paid the Air Force to fly," he said.

To keep them flying, Harrison said it took men such as Staff Sgt. Henry L. Moore, a ground crew chief with the 99th and the third member of the Tuskegee Airmen's Greater Philadelphia Chapter attending the event.

About 1,000 black pilots were trained during the war with about half going overseas, Harrison said. He trained as both a fighter pilot with the 301st Squadron and the all-black 477th Bomber Group, but the war in Europe ended before his squadron shipped out and plans to send it to the Pacific were cut short when Japan surrendered.

Richardson, who said his desire to fly was kindled by seeing "a colored airshow" as a boy, said he does not know how many of his fellow airmen survive.

"We're all in our 80s and everyday Father Time is reaping his due," he said. The retired teacher, however, said the Tuskegee Airmen continue to pass along the lesson that hard work, perseverance and a desire to succeed breed success.

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