The 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Medium Bombardment Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen or “Red Tails”, are one of the most well-known fighting groups of the Second World War (WWII) and is an icon of civil rights action. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott Campus was proud to host two of the Tuskegee Airmen, along with other aviation pioneers, in the Davis Learning Center on Feb. 13. This was made possible by the cooperation of Nick Manderfield, who strives to bring aviation history events to ERAU on a monthly basis, Dr. Melanie Wilson, the Director of the Women’s and Diversity Center, Bill Thompson, Director of Alumni Relations, and Barbara Martens, the Assistant Director of Development.
There were eight speakers at the presentation, all of them members of the Archer – Ragsdale (ARAC) Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen in Phoenix. This chapter is one of 55 of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. that is dedicated to preserving and honoring the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Robert Ashby, one of the original Tuskegee pilots was one of the speakers, along with Lt. Col. Asa Herring, also a Tuskegee Airman, who was a graduating class behind Ashby. Ashby was the only original Tuskegee Airman to be hired by commercial airlines, and only after many years, and Herring became the first African-American squad commander at Luke Air Force Base, flying the F-104.
The other speakers were Rob McGee, a pilot of the Boeing 787 for United and the son of Tuskegee airman Charles McGee; Cadet Alex Travers, who attended the Aviation Career Education program through the chapter and helps teach it now; Bill Norwood, the first black pilot hired by United airlines; James Modeste, an ERAU Alumni of the Daytona campus and instructor for Lufthansa; and Don Chapman, a Canadian pilot who also flies for United, who is known for his work restoring lost Canadian citizenship to millions who lost it due to issues of parentage and Canada’s strange and archaic citizenship laws. Lt. Col. Larry Jackson was the final speaker, and he is the President of the ARAC Chapter, and was an Air Force Fighter pilot, after which he began working for Southwest Airlines.
Jackson began with a brief history of the Tuskegee Airmen, which discussed their missions escorting bomber groups during WWII. He especially highlighted the difficulties faced by the Tuskegee Airmen due to racism, and how the squadron earned its reputation by always sticking close to the bombers. Jackson cited a United States War College study that said “African-Americans were inferior to whites in every discipline…, unreliable under fire…, and did not have the necessary intelligence to operate complex machinery, much less fly”, and illustrated how the US military not only had a practice of racism and segregation, but it was an official policy enforced by biased data.
The Airmen got their name from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and only 450 of the pilots trained by this institute were deployed in WWII, because their deployment was halted due to concerns of their deficiency. Ashby related that Colonel Benjamin Davis, the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen, stated that “any fighter that left the bombers to pursue Nazi fighters would be court-martialed.” Because of this, they became one of the most valued fighter squadrons in the war, leading to Davis being bold enough to paint “by request” on his airplane.
The night was mainly dominated by an in-depth question and answer session, during which the Tuskegee Airmen and the other speakers spoke about overcoming racism and other barriers in their careers and their lives. Several Prescott community members who were present shared their own memories of past racism, and experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen. Some of the audience had relatives who were bombers escorted by the Red Tails during WWII, and others asked questions eagerly about the combat missions of the pilots and what was required of them to become airmen. The fight continued coming back from the war however, since the airmen continued to face hatred and prejudice. “Coming back from the war on the boat, you would walk down the gangplank and be directed ‘Whites there, Coloreds over here!’”, related Lt. Col. Asa Herring about their return home from the war. By the end of the night, the audience was given a new lesson in what it means to love one’s country enough to defend it, even when that country discriminates against you.