Discovering the identity of a Tuskegee airman
Back in November, on Veterans Day, I wrote about some photos I had found at auction of 10 African American soldiers, apparently taken during World War II.
Since the photos had been done by the Army Air Corps, I assumed that these men were involved in the Tuskegee Airmen program, designed to train black pilots during the war. The photos only identified three with first and last names, and I could not find either of them listed on Tuskegee pilot lists on the web. Most websites listed pilots only, not support people, so I was not able to find out anything about these men.
Recently, I got an email from a woman who identified one of the soldiers, the man at the far left in the front row. Her husband had roomed with his brother-in-law at Tuskegee. This was her message to me:
“Lt. Wiley was James Wiley. He and his brother-in-law were both members of the unit trained as pilots at Tuskegee Univ., Alabama, but only James flew in Europe. Ed was in the last class to graduate but did make a career in the Air Force, flying as a USAF pilot in Korea. He is still alive. James died several years ago in the Seattle area. He was active in the Sam Bruce Chapter of TAI almost to the end.”
James Wiley – I finally had a name to research. I found only one James T. Wiley who was listed as a Tuskegee pilot, and I’m assuming he’s the one in the photo. Wiley was among the first 24 pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron who landed in North Africa in 1943. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Smart in science, Wiley attended the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship, earning a degree in physics in 1940, according to an interview with journalist George Edward Barbour in 1985. He wanted to work in a lab but couldn’t find a job. He enrolled at Carnegie Tech for a master’s degree, and heard about the government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program to train civilian pilots at various colleges. Black colleges including Tuskegee were later included, and Wiley applied. In the meantime, he took lessons and earned a private pilot’s license, and then got commercial and instructor training. He was accepted into Tuskegee.
“It was like going to heaven,” he told a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter in 1996.
Here’s what I found out about 2nd Lt. Wiley’s experience as a Tuskegee airman:
The Army Air Corps wasn’t sure what to do with these new black pilots, so the airmen waited around for months after graduation for instructions (here’s a photo of Wiley and his graduating class of 1942). Finally, in 1943 the orders came down and by May they were in Tunisia – the first black pilots in the war – as part of the 33rd Fighter Group. Their main job was to escort bomber pilots, but they did experience some combat from time to time. They were commanded by Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. who would in 1944 also lead the 332nd Fighter Group composed of black pilots in three squadrons, including the 99th. Davis, the Air Force’s first black general, was in the first class of pilots at Tuskegee in 1941.
The 332nd became known as the Red Tails; they painted the tails of their P-51C aircraft red to identify themselves.
A few days after arriving in North Africa, Wiley was one of three men who flew the squadron’s first mission – in what was called a “milk run” or routine flight – over the Italian island of Pantelleria in a Curtiss P-40 War Hawk (here’s a photo of Wiley and other 99th pilots with a P-40). A few days later, another group became the first to participate in aerial combat against German fighter planes.
The Tuskegee airmen were not readily accepted and their abilities were routinely questioned. They were given the chance to prove themselves on Jan. 24, 1944, downing eight German planes in the morning and in the afternoon when Wiley took on the enemy. You can read an account here (page 116).
In one of their best feats, in June, the pilots disabled a German destroyer in northern Italy. When Wiley returned to Pittsburgh on a furlough that June, 50,000 people came out to honor him (he was 25 years old and a captain) and the mayor gave him a key to the city.
Wiley told the Seattle reporter that he flew more than 100 missions over southern Europe and was never shot down. He also told the reporter that he and the other black pilots had a little fun: “I liberated an Italian plane,” Wiley said. “I stole it.”
Here’s are photos here, here and here of Wiley with a captured Italian fighter in North Africa or Sicily. The caption says he repaired the plane and then flew it. I’m not sure if this is the plane he was referring to.
Wiley remained in the military until 1965 (the University of Chicago website showed him earning an MBA degree in 1954), and later worked as an engineer at Boeing until he retired in 1980. He was active in the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. chapter in Seattle, Wash., where he settled. He died in 2000. (The circa 1945 photo of Wiley at left is from the Lincoln Trails Library System website.)