Discovering the identity of a Tuskegee airman
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    A stop-off at Tuskegee to honor an Airman uncle

    My uncle Charles – whom some of us called Dye and his siblings called CW – was a Tuskegee Airman, but I didn’t fully recognize it until long after he had died.

    I should have remembered, though, because he mentioned his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during an interview for a family reunion newspaper we published in 1989. A good friend, who is my “adopted” sister, interviewed him and I edited the story. I suppose I was so caught up in helping to compile the newspaper and write articles that I brushed past this important piece of his and this country’s history.

    Recently, I was driving down Interstate 85 in Alabama and saw a sign for Tuskegee, and the school that Booker T. Washington founded came to mind. I was headed to a family reunion in New Orleans with my niece and two of her friends, but knew I had to stop at Tuskegee University just to drive through the campus.

    Cadets and their instructor go over flight procedures at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Photo from a board at Moton Field.

    Cadets and their instructor go over flight procedures at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Photo from a board at Moton Field historic site.

    Along the way, I spotted a sign for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. It was located at Moton Field, the place where nearly 1,000 black men trained to be airplane pilots and another 9,000 men and women worked to ensure that those pilots and their planes were in tip-top shape.

    The hangars where the men trained have been restored into a museum, and the grounds look much the way they looked in the early 1940s (as shown in photos on the site). Part of Moton Field – now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service – is a green open lawn framed on one side by freestanding boards bearing information and photos of the men. Farther afield are the hangars and other buildings near an airport strip.

    At auction, I’ve come across photos of men who were likely Tuskegee Airmen, and I saw George Lucas’ “Red Tails” documentary that aired in 2012. So I’m very familiar with the airmen. I wish I had been more attentive to my uncle Dye’s time there.

    My uncle Charles Howard. This photo was likely taken while he was training at Moton Field.

    My uncle Charles Howard. This photo was likely taken while he was in training to be a pilot. It was published in our family reunion newspaper.

    Charles Howard enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Jan. 15, 1945, and was discharged two years later, Jan. 27, 1947. The United States had entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

    The federal government first authorized training for African Americans in 1939, with Howard University and Hampton Institute joining Tuskegee in providing preliminary training. By 1941, Tuskegee was the only place that offered flight training for pilots. Moton Field was built by the school in 1941 after it contracted with the government to provide flight training, according to a board on the historic site.

    Early on, the cadets of the 99th Fighter Squadron did little more than train because a recalcitrant military refused to deploy them into combat overseas. It would be about two years before the squadron went overseas.

    LIst of support personnel who are also considered Tuskegee Airmen.

    List of support personnel who are also considered Tuskegee Airmen. Photo is on a board at the Moton Field site.

    My uncle entered a segregated Army with units separated by race (before the 1940s blacks were barred from flying Army aircraft).

    “During World War II, all you needed was good health and a high school diploma,” he said in the interview. “You didn’t find many college men. You didn’t have all those sophisticated computers. It was simple during World War II.”

    He trained to be a pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group, commonly known as the Red Tails because of the color they painted their tail sections. The 332nd had become active in 1942 and consisted of three squadrons that received advanced trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Along with the 99th Fighter Squadron (the first activated), the 332nd served as fighters and escorts in North Africa, Sicily and Italy during the war.

    Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a Tuskegee Airman graduate and commander of the 332nd and 99th Fighter Squadron. This photo is on a board on the Moton Field site.

    Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who was trained at Moton Field and became commander of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 99th Fighter Squadron. This photo is on a board at the Moton Field site.

    They were commanded by Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who himself had come through training at Moton Field in the first class of five cadets of the 99th Squadron in 1941. Davis would become their leader.

    “Whites had AT-6, the better planes,” my uncle said. “Blacks had Piper Cubs. We never had the new planes. We had the hand-me-downs. When they would build some new planes they’d send them to the whites at the other bases and the Negroes would get the old ones.

    “Flying an airplane was like flying a car, if you had the nerve and could stand the altitude.”

    The war officially ended in September 1945 when Japan surrendered. Germany had surrendered in May of that year. The 332nd was also deactivated that year. My uncle saw no combat.

    Cadets watch as their pre-flight instruction explains a maneuver, 1941. This photo is on one of the boards at the Moton site.

    Cadets watch as their pre-flight instruction explains a maneuver, 1941. Behind them is a Piper Cub used in training. This photo is on a board at the Moton Field site.

    African American men came from all over the country to train to be pilots. Pre-flight training was conducted at a small field called the Kennedy Field (where Tuskegee first held training), according to information on the boards at the site. Next was Moton Field for primary flight training and then to the military-run Tuskegee Army Air Field for advanced training. Moton is the only one that still stands.

    The Moton airfield was closed in 1946, and by then some women were among the support personnel. More than 990 men became pilots from 1941 to 1946, and more than a third of them saw combat as fighter pilots. Others were later trained as bomber pilots but the war ended before they could be deployed.

    The Tuskegee Airmen consisted of more than just fighter and bomber pilots. They were also the many support personnel that made the program work, and they are acknowledged on the boards in the park area in Alabama. They were mechanics, instructors, air traffic controllers, gunners, electricians, firefighters, cooks, musicians, photographers, medical staffers and more.

    “Over 10,000 African American men and women took part in the Tuskegee Airmen experience,” according to information on the boards. “All of them – not just the pilots – are Tuskegee Airmen.”

    The park area on the Moton Field site.

    The park area and parking lot on the Moton Field site.

    I knew little about the women pilots who trained black men before they entered the Tuskegee program and also those who served as support personnel in the program.

    After my uncle left Tuskegee in 1945, he served a year as a staff sergeant in Europe.

    “Blacks were still at Tuskegee,” he said. “They didn’t mix until the month I came out, January 1947. That’s when they started moving blacks into white units.”

    That’s also the year the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order banning racial segregation in the military.

    Motion Field as it looks today.

    Motion Field as it looks today.

     

    Moton Field, 1945. The hangar in foreground was built in 1941 and the one in back in 1943. Photos from boards at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

    Moton Field, 1945. The hangar in foreground was built in 1941 and the one in back in 1943. Photos from boards at the Moton Field site.

     

    A quote on the boards at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.

    A quote on a board at the Moton Field site.

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