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Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: Alexander Jefferson

Tuskegee Airman Alexander JeffersonTuskegee Airman pilot, POW and esteemed educator Alexander Jefferson has served his country with distinction, in the face of great adversity.

Jefferson was born Detroit, MI on November 15, 1921, into a family with a rich history in education and religious leadership. His parents were originally from Atlanta, but they moved north shortly before he was born to take advantage of the factory jobs available in Detroit.

As a child, Jefferson would hang around a small airfield to do odd jobs and help work on the planes, and was able to get his first ride in an airplane when he was still in grade school.

With war on the horizon and a desire to fly, Jefferson planned to join the service, but only after he graduated from Clark College in Atlanta with a degree in chemistry and biology. He then easily passed the written exams and was sworn into the Army Reserves September 23, 1942. He volunteered for flight training but was told to wait to be called. In the interim, he started graduate school at Howard University in Washington, DC to further his studies in chemistry, where he taught a class in organic chemistry to help make ends meet.

“I had long had an interest in chemistry. My mother had always insisted that I read, and she encouraged me to go to the local library, where, after spending countless hours thumbing through scientific textbooks and pamphlets, I decided I wanted to be a research chemist. I always knew I had the intellectual ability to accomplish whatever I wished, and if any doubts ever crept into my mind, the firm hand of my mother quickly dispelled them.”

~ Alexander Jefferson

Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: The Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW

Before he completed his first year of graduate work, he received orders in April 1943 to report for flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, where he would go on to graduate with class 44-A on January 7, 1944. Further fighter training included time at Selfridge Army Air Field, 25 miles outside of his hometown of Detroit.

While there, Jefferson was part of a group that tried to integrate the officers’ club on base. Perhaps lesser known that the Freeman Field Mutiny of April 1945 in Indiana, in May of 1944 Jefferson and his fellow black officers questioned the legality of their exclusion from the officers’ club, as it violated an Army regulation that mandated club membership for all officers.

In his book, Jefferson says Selfridge’s white commanding officers “were willing to jeopardize our training and the war effort in order to maintain separate and second-class status for every African American under their command.” These leaders purposefully designated the personnel status of all white officers to “permanent” when the Tuskegee trainees came to Selfridge and ensured the black Airmen were listed as “transient,” regardless of the time spent there. This was done specifically as a way around the regulation to prevent the integration of this space formerly enjoyed by white officers only.

After many peaceful attempts to rectify this wrong, an Army general visited the base to quell the issue and flatly decreed that there should be no socializing between races. For several days following, the Tuskegee Airmen were confined to their posts, locked in without any access to telephones. They were then loaded onto trains without any information about where and why they were leaving Selfridge, and ended up in Walterboro Army Air Base in South Carolina. White soldiers with riffles and bayonets were stationed along both sides of the train when they arrived, prepared for what they were told were rowdy rioters. Walterboro would be their last training stop before deploying to North Africa and Italy for combat duty.

On June 3, 1944, Jefferson and his fellow officers were deployed to Italy with the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, which would remain segregated from their white counterparts, even while serving in combat. He participated in many successful missions protecting bombers and strafing enemy targets on the ground. Tuskegee Airmen pilots, like Jefferson, soon became well known for their tenacity and skill as escorts, eventually being requested by bomber crews.

During a strafing mission over the southern coast of France on August 12 of that same year, on his 19th mission, Jefferson’s P-51 was hit by enemy fire and he was forced to bail out of his plane. He was reported as killed in action because the other Squadron members in the air with him did not see him make it out of his plane alive. His family was not informed by the Red Cross of this error and his status as prisoner of war (POW) until October.

Upon capture, he was initially questioned by a German officer that had lived and attended college in Michigan, recalling many of the same areas and entertainment that Jefferson had enjoyed growing up. During further interrogations, it became clear that German spies had provided a plethora of information from inside the states and, surprisingly, from Ramitelli Air Field. The amount of intelligence they had collected on him and his fellow Airmen was astounding.

As a POW, Jefferson was moved around to several locations, but, because it was apparent the Germans were losing their territorial holds, Jefferson believed he and his fellow Airmen we treated better than they would have been if they had been captured earlier in the War. On April 29, 1945, Jefferson was liberated from the POW camp Stalag Luft VIIIA. 12 other Tuskegee Airmen were also held there.

Unfortunately, his heroism and sacrifice was overshadowed by racism when he returned to the US, promptly reminded of his second-class status the moment he stepped off the boat in New York City. “It was very discouraging, upon returning to the United States, to find racism, segregation, and other social ills alive and well,” he writes in his memoir.

He was posted back at Tuskegee Army Air Field as an instructor, then on to Lockborne Air Force Base in Ohio. After a reduction of forces moved him from active duty to reserve status, Jefferson, like many of his counterparts, found the transition to the civilian workforce difficult because of stifling racism. After being passed over for positions numerous times, he decided to go back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in science education, and enjoyed a long career teaching elementary science and as a school administrator. He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1969 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

To read Jefferson’s entire life story, and be inspired by his life and lessons, you can find his book, “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman” in the CAF Red Tail Squadron store. The book is filled with deeply personal accounts of the racism and obstacles Jefferson faced, lessons of American history generations need to understand and absorb.

You can also see Jefferson in “The Luft Gangster: Memoirs of a Second Class Hero,” documenting his life and experiences. Both items are available in the CAF Red Tail Squadron store, with all proceeds benefiting the mission of the group and their educational outreach efforts.

We salute Lt Col Jefferson for your place in history and the lessons we have learned from your life. Thank you for your service and example of perseverance.

Brad Lang Alexander Jefferson and Bill Shepard with P 51C Tuskegee Airmen

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.

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Portraits of Tuskegee Airmen: Howard Baugh

Like many children who grew up during the post-World War I golden age of aviation, young Howard Baugh dreamed of earning his wings and a seat in the cockpit. But a country mired by systemic racism severely restricted the opportunities for Baugh, and all people of color, and as a young man he faced a harsh reality that this vision of flight may never come true.

Baugh was born January 20, 1920 to William and Carrie Baugh in Petersburg, Virginia. One of five siblings, the family endured enforced segregation and limited civil liberties because of the state’s Jim Crow laws. Baugh attended Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) in Petersburg, one of the nation’s first historically black colleges founded in the mid-Atlantic region. He graduated in 1941, and in February of the following year he married his college sweetheart, Constance Layne.

As World War II geared up to change the course of the country, Baugh would soon get a chance to earn his wings. With the U.S. Army Air Corps opening up the opportunities for black Americans to fly and fight for their country, he enlisted, and was sent to pilot training in Tuskegee, Alabama in March of 1942, just six weeks after he was married. He passed the rigorous courses and was commissioned as an officer in November of 1942. The first time he had ever been in an airplane was when he was training to become a pilot. Baugh had his wings, and was ready to serve his country in the air war over Europe.

CaptHowardBaugh99thFSIn July 1943, Baugh was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron. He flew a total of 135 combat missions in the P-40 and P-51 fighter aircraft during his 16 months in combat operations overseas. In honor of his wife, he painted the nose of his aircraft with “Connie Jean.”

On January 27, 1944, Baugh was part of a formation of 16 fighter aircraft of the 99th involved in a mission over the Anzio beachhead in Italy, part of the Battle of Anzio. Upon spotting 15 German FW-190’s, the group took down 10 of the enemy planes. Baugh was credited 1.5 aerial victories for the effort, taking down one himself and another along with his wingman.

Baugh earned many accolades for his skill and heroism during the war including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

After his time overseas, Baugh was assigned to Tuskegee Army Airfield in November of 1944 where he served as a flight instructor in the T-6 trainer and B-25 bomber and was further promoted to Director of Flying Training.

Their family grew, and the Baugh’s welcomed a total of three boys over the years, Howard Jr., David and Richard. Howard Baugh Jr. would follow in his father’s footsteps as a military aviator, getting his first flying lesson from his father.

His career in the military spanned 25 years of active duty and many interesting assignments. After his time at Tuskegee, he served as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructor at Howard University, Wing Commander and Professor of Aerospace Studies at Tennessee State University. Upon retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1967, he had logged 6,000 flight hours, including 250 in combat and 1,100 in four types of jet aircraft. His impressive lineup of military aircraft flown include the PT-13, PT-17, BT-13, L-20, AT-6, P-40, P-47, P-51, B-25, B-26, C-45, C-47, B-57, B-66, T-33, F-80, SA (HU)-16, F-15 and FA-18.

After leaving the Air Force, Baugh went on to have a successful career with Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Baugh eventually retired back in their hometown of Petersburg, where he gave of his time and talent speaking to and encouraging young people to understand the importance of education. He often spoke about his experience as a Tuskegee Airman, and that it was his good education that propelled his success in the military and in life.

“The most important message that I can give students is to stay in school, get the best education as they can so they can prepare themselves to get in a position to enjoy life,” he said in an interview several years ago.

In these years, Baugh was greatly admired for the service he had given to his country, as well as for his passion for helping others. He was known to be kind, generous and humble, and always eager to help. He shared his experiences to many groups and clubs, even speaking at prisons and traveling to Germany to speak with former war pilots who would have been his foes during the War. Along with three other original Tuskegee Airmen, Baugh was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2004. He was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

In 2003, the Howard Baugh chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. organization in Petersburg was founded in his honor. His sons remain active in the organization, which is currently working towards erecting a statue in Baugh’s honor. The group has commissioned sculptor Joel Randell for the life-sized bronze statue, who Baugh had selected himself.   

When invited to the Pentagon in 2005 with other Tuskegee Airmen to meet with the secretary of defense, Baugh said, “Back in the '40s and prior to that, the military services of the United States were the most racist and segregated segment of our society. Today, it is the most fair and integrated segment of our society. And the Armed Forces are leading the rest of society in acceptance and tolerance of diversity in our society.”

Howard Baugh passed away August 21, 2008, and rests at Arlington National Cemetery alongside his wife. His legacy will continue to inspire young people for generations to come.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.

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