Thursday night (2/17/11), I attended a Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen sponsored by the Community College of Baltimore County’s Aviation Club, Black Student Union and History Club. It was a thrill! Guests Dr. Cyril O. Byron, an original Tuskegee Airman (part of the ground crew) and Bill Peterson (a heritage Tuskegee Airman–his father was an original and he was the paperboy from 1945-46, later joining three years after integration) shared some of the experiences of serving in the military during the era of segregation.
During World War II, many black military units were minimized. There were exceptions, such as the 761st Tank Battalion that served 183 consecutive days following General Patton. The Navy had the Golden 13. Black nurses served, but could not treat white combatants. The Marines did not commission a black officer until November 10, 1945. And, the colonel in command of the Tuskegee Airmen was a graduate of West Point, Col. Theo Davis, Jr., where he spent his four years in isolation, no one speaking to him.
Those who attended the tribute heard about popular contemporary fears that Army Air Corps-trained pilots from the Tuskegee program might seek work as commercial pilots after the war. Everywhere the squadron went they were unwelcome. At one point during the evening, a brief clip was shown that featured three Tuskegee original pilots. Capt. Luther H. Smith, inspired at a young age by Charles Lindberg’s daring trans-Atlantic flight, was shot down on a mission, but told friends and colleagues that he was treated better as a POW than he was in America or in the military. Lt. Col. Lee Buddy Archer, the Ace of the Red Tails, explained how as a boy in Saratoga Springs a pilot who was selling airplane rides for $5 refused his father and added to his determination to fly. Col. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee pilot flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, logging the most combat hours (as far as they knew) of any combat pilot.
Dr. Cyril O. Byron, now ninety years old, was a sophomore at Morgan State College when Uncle Sam invited him to join the Army, in 1942. After time spent in New York, he was transferred down to Tuskegee, AL and assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron. He described Tuskegee as being as unfriendly to the colored units, as they were known, as one might guess. They could not go into town. If they wanted to watch a movie, they needed to make arrangements in advance at the base, go down to the cinema in one truck, wait while one man bought all the tickets and then file in through the side door and up to the balcony. And, all this while wearing the uniform of the United States Army! Dr. Byron said he actively chose to think positively adhering to his father’s words, “Don’t resent what you can’t prevent.”
The squadron would eventually be sent overseas, but would bounce around from unit to unit–all of the first few being British units–until they were assigned to an American base in Salerno, Italy. Italian children would ask for candy then circle around the airmen. At the time, they thought it was just a ploy to get more candy out of them, but then someone spoke to the children and learned that they had been told that black men had tails. Italians familiar with American culture would ask the airmen why they fought for freedoms that they did not have in America. It was hard to answer such queries.
As an escort squadron, recognized by the red paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs–thus their nickname, “Red Tails“–they became one of the most requested units by bomber squadrons who had no idea that the pilots were black. They were in such high demand, in fact, that one of the leaders named his aircraft, “By Request”. A couple of years ago, Dr. Byron said a white man approached him to thank him for the success rate of the Red Tails, because his father had always insisted that had it not been for them he would not have survived the war. Nonetheless, back on American soil, even German POWs had more access on American bases than the successful Tuskegee Airmen because of the color of their skin. It would take 62 years for the United States to finally award medals of recognition to the airmen.
Following the war, Dr. Byron would finish his degree and then proceed to NYU for his Masters and further to Temple for his Ed.D. Peterson would join up three years after the armed forces were integrated and through the military complete his education.
The presentation concluded with a final thank you from a CCBC aviation student, Doug, who had been a part of the Tuskegee Youth and Aviation Program at College Park, MD–CCBC awarded a $500 donation to the same program in gratitude for Mr. Peterson and Dr. Byron’s presentations and time Thursday evening. Doug expressed his thanks briefly, not only for the direct involvement he had in their program, but also for the legacy that they had handed down to him from the days of segregation.
The evening’s events concluded with the movie, The Tuskegee Airmen. It was a special evening and the parties involved at CCBC did a terrific job in bringing it all together!