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Feb 01, 2017

Memories of a Tuskegee Airman

By Lori Draz

In World War II, there was a group of men who would go on to change history and society: the proud members of the Tuskegee Airman Experience. Until its formation, blacks were not allowed to train to fly. The harshness of the military’s reasoning included words like inferior, lacking coordination and discipline, and far worse – yet, in 1941, the Army decided to try “an experiment” and formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, because the pilots trained at Morton airfield, which was adjacent to Tuskegee University. The first all-black air squadron fought and broke the barriers to achieve greatness in the air and in history, even though the experiment was expected to fail. The testing for blacks entering in pilot training was far more rigorous than whites. Approximately 11,000 volunteered and less than 1,000 were chosen. The training was conducted by a small group of instructors who suffered attacks for their willingness to train the pilots. Yet the men persevered.

The first African American to earn his pilot’s license, Charles Alfred Anderson, also became the first flight instructor when the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was organized at Tuskegee Institute. The army hired him to teach the Tuskegee pilots. The pilots were not taken seriously by the Army, until one day in 1941 when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Army Air Field and insisted on taking a plane ride with a black pilot. That pilot was Charles Alfred Anderson. The ride and the photo sent shockwaves, and Mrs. Roosevelt used this experience and the photos to encourage President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to activate the Tuskegee Airmen.

In June 1943, the Tuskegee Airmen entered into combat over North Africa, and later Sicily, Italy, and Germany. The 332nd Fighter Group consisted originally of four fighter squadrons: the 99th, the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd. Their primary duty was to protect the bombers from being shot down. These tenacious fighters completed a record-setting 1,500-plus missions during the war. As a means of identifying themselves, they painted the tails of their aircraft bright red, earning them the name red tail angels, or red tails. There is a movie by the name of “Red Tails” that gives a very accurate depiction of the story of the squadron and the flights.

As the war continued, new pilots were assigned to one of the four bomber squadrons of the 477th Bombardment Group at Selfridge Field near Detroit, Michigan, which was activated in early March 1945. These pilots never saw combat in the air, but they did see social combat when, in April of 1945, a number of these Tuskegee Airmen attempted to integrate a white officers club and were arrested in what came to be called the Freeman Field Mutiny.

At the end of the war, the airmen had earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The group was deactivated in May 1946, but its success would contribute to the eventual integration of the United States military in 1948.

Right here in neighboring Tinton Falls, we were lucky enough to meet Rev. Milton Holmes, one of the original airmen and author of Memories of the Unexpected – The Story of a Tuskegee Airman. Rev. Holmes and his second wife, Jacqueline, have been married for 32 years. He shared his memories, saying that he wanted to fly because he walked past the Air Force base every day growing up outside of Baltimore in the segregated town of Turner Station. At the age of 18, he saved his money to attend the Hampton Institute in Hampton Roads, VA. All the bases were segregated in 1944. He started at Hampton Institute, moved onto Keesley Field, Mississippi, then to Lincoln, Nebraska, which is where he learned there was an opening for pilots at Tuskegee. He was one of only two students to pass the trial, and returned to Keesley for the five-day test that allowed him to train at Tuskegee.

Many of his old friends were there, but he said it was a very strict environment. “We knew we had to have discipline. We had to be better than everyone because everyone expected us to fail. The upperclassmen said we are a team, we have to work together.” And they were more than a team; they became a family. They felt that everyone – from the grounds crew, to the mechanics, to the guys who fixed the parachutes – were all an important and equal part of the operation.

He remembered the pain of the segregation and how proud the men were to make their contribution to the war. Following his military days, “I became more militant, joining marches on Washington and speaking up for change. We did accomplish very much, but there is still much to do to truly achieve equality. My best advice is to know what you want and work hard to get it. I also think one of the most important things a person can do is learn history, not just of this country, but of the world. This way, you truly understand people.”

Rev. Holmes is active in the Tinton Falls Rotary Club, NAACP branch of Greater Red Bank, and The Hannibal M. ‘Killer” Cox Jr. Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, and he lunches with members of the Battle of the Bulge on the fourth Thursday of every month. He is also available to speak at functions.

Congratulations to these brave men and thank you, Rev. Holmes, for your service!