Commemorative Air Force Blogs

Welcome to the Commemorative Air Force Blogs. A great way to stay informed about what is going on with the CAF.

Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: Joe Gomer

Tuskegee Airman pilot Joe Gomer was born on June 20, 1920 in Iowa Falls, Iowa. The Gomer family was one of only two African American families in their small town. Growing up, he was fascinated by model airplanes and dreamed of becoming a pilot. He worked in his father’s janitorial business from the age of 12. 

 

Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer 1Gomer and his brother Charles attended Iowa Falls High School, and in 1938 he was the school’s only African American in his graduating class. Sadly, his father passed away that same year. His community rallied together to help fund Gomer’s attendance at Ellsworth College to study pre-engineering. He earned his degree and continued on at the school to attend their flight training program, learning to fly in a pasture outside of town. 

 

As the United States marched into World War II, Gomer enlisted in the Army in July of 1942 at the age of 22. He applied for and was accepted into the new aviation cadet training program for African Americans at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. He would become the first black officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps from the state of Iowa. 

 

After earning his wings in May of 1943 and completing all advanced training, Gomer deployed to Italy with the 332ndFighter Group of the 301stFighter Squadron. In combat, he flew 68 missions over Italy and Germany. He had several close brushes with danger, including a crash landing in a P-39, a lost canopy while flying a P-51 and survived being riddled by German bullets in a P-47. 

Even though he bravely served his country during the War, Gomer experienced the sting of racism, regardless of his status of military officer and World War II combat pilot. Leaving his hometown and traveling to Alabama, then around the world, Gomer came face to face with unjust and cruel treatment. Even in the theaters of War, Gomer and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen remained segregated from their white counterparts and were treated as inferior to German prisoners. 

 

After the War, Gomer married Elizabeth Caperton on March 12, 1949, and together they raised two daughters. He remained in the U.S. Air Force and became a helicopter pilot serving in Japan during the Korean War, then a nuclear weapons technician. In 1964 he retired with the rank of Major. He spent the next 21 years as a personnel officer for the U.S. Forest Service, retiring in 1985. He received a Superior Services Award from the Secretary of Agriculture for his outstanding work with minorities and women. 

Into his retirement, Gomer remained active even very late in his life, giving his time talking to school groups and at community events about the Tuskegee Airmen and the importance of education. “People can be anything they want to be now,” he said in a 2007 interview. “There is no glass ceiling. Education is the key.”

 

For his service as a Tuskegee Airman and community leader, Gomer was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004. He received a Doctorate of Humanities from the Board of Trustees of Ellsworth College in 2004 and their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009.

Gomer passed away in October in 2013. There are two statues in Iowa to honor his life and service located at Duluth International Airportand on thegrounds of Ellsworth College

 

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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Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: Charles Dorkins

Tuskegee Airman Charles Dorkins USAAF portaitPhotographer, cinematographer and author Charles Dorkins was born December 16, 1922 in Baltimore, MD to Christopher and Athie Dorkins. 

He graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field on March 11, 1945 part of class TE-45-A, trained to fly twin engine B-25 bombers as part of the 477th Bombardment Group. The bomber pilots and crew would never deploy as the War ended in the Pacific before they were sent overseas. 

 

During training, Dorkins was part of group of officers that was arrested for trying to gain entrance into a military officers club at Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana. The event would become known as the Freeman Field Mutiny, a non-violent act of protest that went on to become a treasured and landmark point in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

 

Early in 1945, the 477thwas moved twice, first to Kentucky, then to Indiana. It was here, at Freeman Army Airfield, that the group’s Commander, Col Robert Selway, created 2 clubs – segregating “trainees” from “instructors.” This distinction was a thinly-veiled disguise for the real purpose, which was to segregate the black officers, all of which were trainees, from the instructors who were white.

 

There had been issues with officers’ clubs in the past, but at Freeman Field the black officers took a stand, and ended up in the history books. Over the course of several days in April 1945, black officers, in small groups, tried to enter the white-only officers club, each time met with greater resistance. Eventually, 120 black officers who had tried to gain entrance were arrested. All would be released later that month, but it would be decades before they were fully exonerated for their protest. 

 

After the War, Dorkins relocated to New York City where, for more than 50 years, he worked as a filmmaker and photographer. His long and fruitful career included many milestones. 

 

Dorkins was part of a United Nations-sponsored project to promote cultural sharing around the world, where he had the opportunity to meet several world leaders. He produced an award-winning documentary in the early 1960s for NBC about the revolution in the then Belgian Congo, in which he lived with the revolutionaries and was injured. Other projects included a black film production of Hamlet shot in the Bahamas; a documentary about life in black neighborhoods of Detroit in the late 1960s at the height of the era’s racial tension; and a film about the Tuskegee Airmen. 

 

Dorkins passed away at the age of 95 on April 9, 2018. Thank you for your service to our country 2ndLt. Dorkins!

 

For a look into Dorkins life and service as a Tuskegee Airmen see these items in the CAF Red Tail Squadron Virtual Musuem:

 

Barracks photos of Tuskegee Airman Charles Dorkins

Official Air Corps documents of Tuskegee Airman Charles Dorkins

Flight suit and dress uniform of Tuskegee Airman Charles Dorkins

Photos of Tuskegee Airmen class TE-45-A

 

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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Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: William Armstrong

Tuskegee Airmen William ArmstrongIt is an unfortunately reality of war that oftentimes loved ones do not come home. No matter the skill or training, many service members of World War II perished in combat. William Armstrong did not live to see the Allies liberate Europe, but his efforts as a Tuskegee Airmen pilot, and citizen who stepped up to service his country, played a role in that success.

 

Born October 24, 1924 in Washington, DC, Armstrong was raised along with his sister Evelyn in the west end of Providence, RI by his mother, grandfather and stepfather. He excelled in academics, was a member of the student council and lent his beautiful tenor voice to the Episcopalian Church of the Saviour. His peers described him as handsome and outgoing.

 

After graduating from high school in 1943, Armstrong’s plans to pursue the education needed to become an attorney we derailed by the War. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was accepted into the pilot training program in Tuskegee. He graduated with class 44-H-SE on September 8, 1944, earning his wings to fly single engine fighters against the enemy in Europe. Armstrong deployed with the 332ndFighter Group to Ramitelli, Italy shortly thereafter. 

 

During his time in theater, Armstrong flew bomber escort missions over Europe, protecting American bombers from enemy fire as they dropped their explosive payloads over targets deep within Nazi territory. The skill of Tuskegee Airmen like Armstrong to keep their bombers safe and able to complete their missions earned them the nickname “Red Tail Angels” and were requested by the bomber pilots to escort their missions, regardless of the color of the skin. This was a remarkable acknowledgement, considering the climate of racial injustice that existed in that era.

 

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, just a month before victory would be declared in Europe, Armstrong’s squadron was engaged by German aircraft in an air battle over the skies of Austria while trying to return from a bombing raid which Armstrong and his fellow Airmen had provided escort protection. 12 German planes went down in that battle, as well as two American aircraft. Armstrong’s plane was hit, and he was killed in action, along with Tuskegee Airmen pilot Walter Manning in another plane. Armstrong’s body was unable to be recovered before the end of the war.

 

Due to the tenacity and insistence of his stepfather, Nelson Venter, Armstrong’s remains were located in a grave in Austria, and returned home in March of 1950 for burial in a family plot in Providence. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Air Medal and Presidential Unit Citation. 

 

The local VFW post of his hometown dedicated a memorial in his honor in 1946, but was eventually lost due to redevelopment in the area. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame in 2009.In 2010, the William P. Armstrong Memorial Square was given a fresh update and re-dedicated with much local fanfare in Providence. 

 

In memory of the service and sacrifice of Flight Officer William Armstrong. 

 

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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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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Read a student’s interview of Tuskegee Airman Harry Stewart!

As the go-to resource for accurate information about the Tuskegee Airmen, and the premier provider of free, easily accessible educational content, the CAF Red Tail Squadron is happy to help accommodate the many special requests we get.

Recently, a high school student in New Jersey contacted us regarding his project to interview survivors of the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. He really wanted to learn from one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and luckily we were able to put him in touch with Tuskegee Airman Harry T. Stewart.

Read an expert form their interview with will be used in this student’s final work!

 

Q: What is your full name? What date and where were you born?

A: Harry T. Stewart, Jr., born July 4, 1924 in Newport News, VA

 

Q: Do you remember growing up during the Depression? What were things like for you and your family?

A: Yes, I remember the depression very well. I grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City. My father was a Postal Clerk, so we did not suffer financially.

 

Q: Did you ever face racism while growing up? Did this impact you personally?

A: My neighborhood and schools were fully integrated, but there was subtle racism.

 

Q: Did you go to school? Would you notice others suffering because of the Depression?

A: I went to public schools in Queens. I was very conscious of people in the community suffering from the Depression.

 

Q: When did you decide to join the military and why did you join?

A: All able-bodied males between the ages of 18 and 38 were subject to involuntary conscription. I volunteered by taking a qualifying examination to ensure my training to become a pilot.

 

Q: Where did you go to boot camp? What was your training like?

A: My pilot training started in March of 1943 at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama. The training was very rigorous.

 

Q: Were you assigned to any particular fighting groups, divisions during the war?

A: Yes. I was assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy.

 

Q: When were you sent overseas? Were you excited?

A: I was sent overseas in November 1944. Yes, I was very excited.

 

Q: Were you in any particular battles during the war? Did you shoot down any enemy aircraft?

A: I flew 43 combat missions and shot down 3 enemy aircraft.

 

Q: When you joined the military was that the first time you saw an aircraft, or had you seen them before the War?

A: I grew up near an airport that had seen some military planes, but I never flew in a plane until I went into the military service.

 

Q: Did you come from a military family?

A: No!

 

Q: Do you remember when the War ended? What was your reaction to this?

A: The war in Europe ended in May of 1945. I was still in Italy. I wanted to go to the Pacific combat zone, but the war ended there in August 1945.

 

Q: Did you earn any specific medals during the war for your participation? If so could you list these medals?

A: Yes! I received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters.

 

Q: Did you stay in the military after the War? If so what was the military like after the War?

A: I was discharged from the service January 1950.

 

Q: Do you remember the civil rights movement? Did this impact you in any way? Can you describe it?

A: Yes, I remember the civil rights movement very much. I attended the first March on Washington. It was a very meaningful time for the nation.

Learn more about Harry Stewart in the CAF Red Tail Squadron’s Profiles of 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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Tuskegee Airman Speaking at Free Event in Red Wing September 12

Dr. Brown book coverThe CAF Red Tail Squadron is excited to announce an event in their hometown with Dr. Harold Brown, World War II pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The Squadron is hosting his appearance in Red Wing, which will inspire the local community through his remarkable experience as one of our nation’s first black military pilots.

The public is invited to meet this American hero in person and hear him speak about his personal experience from his new book, “Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman,” co-authored with his wife Dr. Marsha Bordner. The FREE event open to the public will be held Tuesday, September 12 at 6:00 p.m. at Sheldon Theater. All ages are welcome to attend.

Dr. Brown is a Minneapolis native and North High School graduate. He flew with the famed 332nd Fighter Group in World War II, the famed all black military pilots who overcame great adversity to fly and flight for our country. He graduated from the Tuskegee Institute’s segregated pilot training program and was commissioned as an officer in the then U.S. Army Air Corps in 1944. During his time in combat, Dr. Brown completed missions strafing targets on the ground and protecting bombers in the air. On his 30th mission, he was shot down over enemy territory, bailing out of his badly damaged P-51 and being taken as a prisoner of war.

Dr. Brown served his country for 23 years. He retired in 1965 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, experienced in 20 different military aircraft and with a post at Strategic Air Command under his belt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dr. Brown went on to earn a Ph.D., eventually retiring from Columbus Technical College as Vice President of Academic Affairs. His many successes after the war illustrate his passion for education and community service, which he has carried with him until today, speaking to countless groups and students to inspire them with his own personal story of struggle and success.

The event at Sheldon Theater will include a short video, a presentation by Dr. Brown, a question and answer session, and opportunity for autographs. Mark your calendar to meet, learn from and be inspired by this living legend. Sheldon Theater is located at 443 W 3rd St. in Red Wing. No tickets are required for this free event.

In addition to the event at Sheldon Theater, Dr. Brown has also made time to speak with local students and at a correctional facility in the area to encourage all to “rise above” their challenges and find success.

His visit to Red Wing is made possible by the CAF Red Tail Squadron, a non-profit group based in Red Wing that works to ensure the inspirational legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen lives on 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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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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Paying respect to the birthplace of our P-51C Mustang “Tuskegee Airmen”

Paying respect to the birthplace of our P-51C Mustang “Tuskegee Airmen”

Did you know the CAF has a resident historical expert who is nothing short of a gold mine of WWII aviation history and knowledge? Keegan Chetwynd, CAF Education Coordinator and Curator, recently shared a wealth of information about the birthplace of our P-51 Mustang Tuskegee Airmen, and it is FASCINATING.

Following a CAF headquarters event in Dallas, Chetwynd led a tour to the famed North American Aviation plant, the iconic aerospace manufacturer responsible for the mass production of aircraft from WWII. Their facility in Dallas was opened as the country prepared for war, and their presence helped the local economy rise from the ruins of the depression that were still felt in the hard-hit state of Texas.

The plant is actually located adjacent to Grand Prairie, just west of the city of Dallas. As a special benefit to CAF members, Chetwynd led a foot tour of the area surrounding the facility for those interested in learning more about this often forgotten, but important piece of Dallas history. It was a rare treat for CAF members to catch a glimpse of what was an iconic factory supporting our troops in WWII.

Bill Shepard, CAF Red Tail Squadron Leader and CAF Vice President of Education, attended the event. Visiting the site where our P-51C Mustang Tuskegee Airmen rolled off the production line, built by the hands of what were very much artisans, was in his words, a very awe-inspiring moment.

“I don’t think people realize the impact that North American Aviation had on not just the socio-economic front, but how the work they provided the community helped to bridge some very large social gaps,” recalls Shepard. “People of many different backgrounds worked together washing the slate not clean, but cleaner. These folks worked together side by side, regardless of race, for a common goal. That was practically unheard of at the time.”

The effects of the wartime employment North American offered the Dallas area was felt for a long time. “The work being done on their shop floors at that point of time was very innovative for our society and helped to break down barriers. These opportunities brought people out of the fields and gave them the opportunity to earn a living wage and increase their station in life and that of their families. People in these communities today are the fruits of their parents’ labor. Its impact has been felt for generations.”

North American Aviation’s plant in Dallas was a place where tens of thousands of people were gainfully employed in a time of economic hardship, giving each person a chance to use their hands and intellect to help end the war. Up to 40,000 people were employed at the plant at its peak. They hired “outside the box,” employing men that were younger and older than the draft age, women, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. And each employee at North American was encouraged to share their ideas for innovation, the implementation of which lead to safer practices and significant cost savings. This 24-hour-a-day operation was a focal point of manufacturing at that time in the U.S., and their contributions to the processes of manufacturing resonated across the industry.

Shepard lived near the facility in his youth. “My dad was stationed across the runway from here. As a kid I had no idea I was in close proximity to such important history,” Shepard remembers. “Looking at the shell of a building that was once there, Keegan colorized in our minds people in mass transitions, herds of people coming through to work. They worked to improve their lives and help end the war. It must have been an amazing sight.”

No books have been published to capture the story of North American’s important historical presence in Dallas. This was the largest aircraft production factory in WWII by volume, and it’s the only facility of its scale still standing today. There are many impressive statistics, including:

-       - The plant was built in 120 days

-       - They often produced aircraft faster than they could be picked up

-       - 83% of all AT-6 Texan aircraft were produced at this plant

-       - At it’s peak, 250 Mustangs per month came off the production line

-       - Every C model Mustang ever built came from this plant

-       - The site spans 272 acres and contains 2.9 million square feet in 85 buildings

-       - The Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), the all-female pilot group that served the country stateside, picked up many of the planes and ferried them to their forward deployment locations

-       = An entire community known as Avion Village was built in record time to accommodate the workers, and people still live there today

To learn more, watch the CAF’s webinar, “The Forgotten History of North American Aviation in Dallas.” See historic photos, learn about the people who made their mark on our country’s airpower in WWII, and get a deeper look into a forgotten piece of American history.

 

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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Original Tuskegee Airman joins the CAF Red Tail Squadron to bring history to life at Florida middle school

This month we’ve had the pleasure of visiting several sites in Florida to tell the important and inspirational story of the Tuskegee Airmen. As always, between air shows, museums and community events, we carve out time from our schedule to visit schools. This way we can bring our message direct to students – an audience who might not be able to come to one of our larger events and hear about the Tuskegee Airmen. We’re proud to have the community support to bring a valuable history lesson straight to kids who stand to benefit the most.

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Recently we brought the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit to Deerfield Beach Middle School where Dr. Regina Del Pino and school staff graciously welcomed us with open arms and helped to deliver this important inspirational message to the students who were eager to hear it. The icing on the cake? Original Tuskegee Airman Lt Col Leo Gray came to the school for a special appearance, and was greeted with a hero’s welcome. He shared with students his personal story of perseverance and service to our country, bringing history to life in a way only a decorated WWII hero can.

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“We arranged to have two police cars in front of the campus with the lights on to properly welcome Lt Col Gray,” said Dr. Del Pino, coordinator of the school’s International Baccalaureate Magnet Program. “Our school’s Explorer Cadets were all lined up in their uniforms in front of the campus for his arrival. Other students were positioned behind them in their uniforms and each waving the American flag. It was a proud moment.”

The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit was on campus for two days so that all students had the chance to visit the mobile theater and see our original film “Rise Above.” The event was followed by an open house on the weekend for the entire community to come down to the Traveling Exhibit for their own immersive and inspirational experience. 

"I had the opportunity to view the mobile theater last year and it brought me to tears, just thinking of the inequitable treatment these men endured. This was an opportunity for our students to learn valuable history,” said Dr. Del Pino. “It is my hope that many of our students left this experience inspired to see future career possibilities, and feel empowered knowing that with perseverance and hard work that all things are possible.”

Thank you to Lt Col Gray for joining us yet again for an impactful event that left students ready to RISE ABOVE and achieve their dreams!

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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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Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: Dr. Harold Brown

Profiles of Tuskegee Airmen: Dr. Harold Brown

Dr. Harold Brown has been generous with his guidance and support for the CAF Red Tail Squadron. As our RISE ABOVE Red Tail program has evolved over the years, he has provided direction to program leaders, spoken in person many times to our audiences, and even hosted the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit in his hometown. This gracious American hero continues to exemplify the attitude and passion that surely made him a top notch original Tuskegee Airmen as well.

A native of Minneapolis, Minn., Dr. Brown’s personal history is full of remarkable points of interest… and inspiration. As a child he dreamed of being a pilot, even though at the time black men were regarded as incapable of flying for the military. With the advent of the flight-training program at the Tuskegee Institute in 1941, Dr. Brown got his chance to fly and graduated from the program in 1944, earning a spot in the famed 332nd Fighter Group. You can read more about his thoughts and experiences with the P-51 on our blog.

This gift of flight was not without its struggles. “Purposeful and malicious roadblocks were set before us to cause our failure,” recalls Dr. Brown. “Not just me, but it’s what the entire group had to overcome to accomplish our goals. It is significant, and young people today can learn from it. Find your passion, find what you love. Set goals and go after them with your whole heart. That’s the best way to find success. That’s how we overcame our obstacles to become Tuskegee Airmen.”

During his time in combat, Dr. Brown completed ground and combat missions, strafing targets on the ground and protecting bombers in the air. On his 30th mission, Dr. Brown was shot down over enemy territory, bailing out of his badly damaged P-51 and being taken as a POW. For six weeks he was kept captive, the possibility of losing his life staring him starkly in the face. Dangers surrounded him – interrogations, friendly fire, forced to walk from one POW camp to another – a perilous journey until his liberation by Allied forces.

But the years in WWII do not fully define Dr. Brown. His many successes after the war illustrate his passion for education and community service. Dr. Brown went on to earn a Ph.D., retiring from Columbus State Community College as Vice President of Academic Affairs.

These remarkable experiences are the subject of a forthcoming book co-authored with Dr. Marsha Bordner, Dr. Brown’s wife, and also an education professional, who retired as president of Terra Community College in Fremont, Ohio.

“This is the story of a genuine American hero, and the Tuskegee Airmen were exactly that,” said Dr. Bordner. “The book we are writing is an in-depth look at Harold’s life – his ancestors, his life before flight training, the war years and his later accomplishments. There’s much to learn from his life. His time in the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis, his time in the education system, and other life experiences will serve as an example of how one can persevere in a world not friendly or accommodating to their dreams.”

At 91 years’ young, Dr. Brown still graciously volunteers his time to share with others the important history of the Tuskegee Airmen, speaking to groups around the country. “If I accepted every request to speak, I’d be busy seven days a week!” said Dr. Brown, chuckling at the prospect. “I still get out there because it’s essential to reach children and let them know that they all face problems, but they should never give up. There are a lot of parallels to the Tuskegee Airmen, and we need to help them understand that.”

The life story of Tuskegee Airmen Harold Brown is currently in the process of being published. Keep your eyes on this blog for news about when and where it will be available.

To Dr. Brown, you are our kind of celebrity and we admire your bravery and accomplishments. Your life’s service and work continue to be an inspiration to us all; we appreciate your enthusiasm to help the CAF Red Tail Squadron share this important piece of American history.

RISE ABOVE!

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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CAF Red Tail Squadron shares experience and friendship at the CAF Wing Staff conference

CAF Red Tail Squadron shares experience and friendship at the CAF Wing Staff conference

Each year, the headquarters of the Commemorative Air Force hosts an event for their unit leaders and members as way for all to share ideas and build connections – CAF Wing Staff! This year’s event was also filled with many touching moments that swelled the hearts of all in attendance.

Everywhere you looked, old friends greeted each other, and first timers were quickly welcomed to the fold. There is simply no escaping the fact that what draws members to the CAF is their love and respect for vintage military aviation, but it’s the PEOPLE – their passion for the cause and their dedication to one another – that is absolutely the backbone of this worthy organization and why they stay for upwards of 30 years.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron team was proud to be asked to share our unique brand of inspiration with other CAF units. LaVone Kay, Marketing Director, Marvona Welsh, Logistics Coordinator, and Darcy Castro, PR and Communications Coordinator, presented a session to event attendees that gave creative ideas to integrate veterans into CAF unit events. Bill Shepard, Squadron Leader and CAF VP of Education, held a session that gave a look at upcoming ways units will be able to apply educational outreach programs in their areas. The spirit of collaboration was strong and everyone – the Squadron included – walked away with exciting ideas of how to inject these invigorating ideas into their own missions!

One of the highlights of the event was the CAF Hall of Fame Awards, where four members were recognized for their accomplishments and outstanding contributions to the organization over the decades they have been faithful members. Two of the recipients were represented by their spouses, as they were posthumously inducted. It was difficult to find a dry eye in the house.

At the close of the event yesterday, it was apparent that there are a LOT of CAF units doing a LOT of interesting and exciting things (not to mention the big plans in store for the new CAF National Air Base at Dallas Executive Airport!). It was an honor to attend an event that afforded the Red Tail Squadron team the opportunity to not only share our strengths with others, but to learn about and apply lessons from some really great projects taking place at units around the county.

We are proud to be a part of the CAF family!

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: Luther Smith

Portraits of Tuskegee Airmen: Luther Smith

Character. What we do with what we’ve been given. What we do in the face of adversity. What we do when times are good, and bad. In the profile of Capt Luther Smith – original Tuskegee Airman, engineer, patent-holder, community servant and father – we are given a great example of this valuable trait.

Smith’s dreams of flight began early in childhood. He held them tight, even when everyone around him and the constructs of society at the time seemed to make that dream an impossible reality. But Smith believed in the power of preparation… to be ready just in case circumstances may change and an opportunity could present itself.

Screen Shot 2016 02 05 at 4.46.12 PMAs an 11-year-old growing up in Iowa, Smith found $5 in a field used it to buy a ride in an airplane for him and his younger brother. The experience had him hooked on aviation. The tenacious young man would walk five miles everyday to the airport where he made himself useful to anyone that would have him, planning to learn all he could and one day get a seat in the cockpit. The local paper even wrote a story on him. By 1940, he had earned his pilot’s license, becoming one of the first black Americans to do so.

He didn’t stop there. Smith was determined to fly in the military, even though the U.S. Army Air Corps did not allow African Americans to serve as pilots, regardless of experience and ability. He made sure he was prepared anyhow.

When he was a student at the University of Iowa studying engineering, he knew that military pilots needed a minimum two years of college education, so to advance his chances he made sure to check that box. And as fate would have it, the Air Corps created the flight-training program at the Tuskegee Institute, and Smith went on to earn his wings in the program.

Unfortunately, the challenges of being a black in a time of severe racial prejudice and discrimination in our country did not evaporate when he became an officer and fighter pilot, volunteering to fight for our country in WWII. In fact, when he was en route to being deployed overseas, he was refused entry to a movie theater – a stark reminder of the tremendous obstacles yet to overcome.

Smith’s service with the 332nd Fighter Group included 133 combat missions within eight months, destroying two German aircraft in air and 10 in ground strafing attacks. On his final mission, Smith’s aircraft was heavily damaged and he bailed out over Yugoslavia, where he was taken captive as a POW for seven months. He was badly injured and emaciated by the time Allied forces liberated him, and endured a further two years of recovery stateside. He earned numerous commendations for his service and sacrifice, but his career as a military aviator came to a grinding halt, bringing Smith an early retirement and at the doorstep of starting over again.

After completing his degree, he went on to become the first African-American aerospace engineer for GE’s Missile and Space Operations, and served the company for the entire 38-year span of his career. He consulted with NASA, developed patents, earned a Master’s degree and helped the Navy create silent submarines. All of this from a man that GE didn’t initially want to even interview – a decorated war hero, well educated, determined – because of the color of his skin.

“His professional accomplishments after the war were groundbreaking for our society,” said his daughter Deborah Smith. “My father is unique, but of the Tuskegee Airmen that survived the war, it’s impressive to look at what they’ve achieved in their lives, coming from a relatively small group. It’s a testament to these men and the talent they had that would have otherwise been overlooked.”

It wasn’t until much later in life that Smith spoke publicly about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airmen, and when he did it was captivating. “In the year 2000 my father made one of his first speeches about his service in the war and it was the first time I heard him speak of it in much detail,” recalls his son, Gordon Smith. “The Tuskegee Airmen, like my father, share a common trait of determination and perseverance, and their success underscores these qualities. They are the perfect example of not letting incredible institutional barriers get in the way. It’s the kind of model you would want to provide for any young person. He delivered that message in a very impactful way to the audiences he spoke to.”

Smith honorably served on the jury that chose the design for the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. At the groundbreaking ceremony, he spoke about his time serving our country, and earned the praise of then president Bill Clinton, whom he also accompanied to Europe to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. For his service, outstanding career and commitment to his community, Smith received much recognition, including an honorary doctorate from Tuskegee University in 2006.

Capt Luther Smith passed away in 2009 at the age of 89. He remains a vivid reminder of the Tuskegee Airmen’s ability to rise above the obstacles set before them to triumph over adversity. He fought the enemy abroad and racism at home. His inspirational life story is one not only of determination, but great success. We salute you sir.

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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Important opportunity for students to participate in Black History Month!

Important opportunity for students to participate in Black History Month!

Attention educators!

February marks the 40th anniversary of the formal adoption of Black History Month in the US, an important remembrance of people and events influential to the history of African Americans.

In an effort to bring the Tuskegee Airmen into YOUR classroom for Black History Month, our annual school competition is in full swing! Give your students the opportunity to think critically about the Squadron’s Guiding Six Principles, based on the Tuskegee Airmen’s determination to succeed, and reflect on how the legacy of the Airmen can be applied to their own lives. Students who submit an essay or artwork applying these Principles will be eligible to win one of several prizes from the Squadron.

Check out www.redtail.org/red-tail-competition/ for details on this fun and easy project for your students. But hurry! Entries must be submitted by February 26!

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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CAF names Red Tail Squadron’s Bill Shepard their new VP of education

CAF names Red Tail Squadron’s Bill Shepard their new VP of education

Recently the Commemorative Air Force, the parent organization of the CAF Red Tail Squadron, announced that Bill Shepard has been named their Vice President of Education. Shepard is concurrently the Squadron Leader of the CAF Red Tail Squadron and P-51C Mustang pilot.

Shepard will oversee the design, execution and funding of CAF’s national education program, called RISE ABOVE. This new program is a result of the success of the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and will expand to include other compelling stories of World War II aviation, such as the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP); all done in an effort to use the lessons of the past to inspire today’s youth to “rise above” their circumstances.

“I look forward to helping others realize their potential by celebrating the stories of the men and women that rose above their circumstances in service to their country,” said Shepard. “I am excited about the opportunity to continue what has become my life's work to ‘Inspire for Higher’ in all aspects of my life.”

Read the entire press release on the CAF website.

Join us as we congratulate Bill Shepard on his new position and exciting work with the CAF!

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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Ohio student catches the ear of CAF Red Tail Squadron pilots

Ohio student catches the ear of CAF Red Tail Squadron pilots

Ryan Miller, a high school sophomore in Powell, Ohio, recently contacted the CAF Red Tail Squadron with a special invitation. Miller had been hard at work on a presentation for his English and history interdisciplinary class and was excited to share it with one of our P-51C Mustang pilots.

He was tasked with a project looking at the realities of history vs. Hollywood, and to pick a movie that has historical significance and compare the history of the movie to Hollywood’s version of events. The movie of choice? Red Tails.

Miller’s special request was to have one of the Squadron’s P-51C pilots attend his final presentation, as a gesture of honor to the Tuskegee Airmen and their legacy.

With all of his hard work, Miller learned a lot about the Tuskegee Airmen. “I believe the Airmen were some of the bravest young men in the United States military,” he said. “They were thought of as inferior and suffered racism both on and off the battlefield. In the end they created a legacy for themselves, known as one of the most elite fighter pilot groups in U.S. history.”

CAF Red Tail Squadron pilot Doug Rozendaal was quick to heed the call.

“I am happy to learn about your presentation, because I am sure that your have learned that, while the Red Tails movie did a great job of raising the awareness of the Tuskegee Airmen, its story has little congruence with history,” Rozendaal shared with the young learner. “I also applaud your teachers for their effort to cause young people such as yourself to dig deeper into history and learn that everything they see from Hollywood is not necessarily accurate. Further, much of our history is being glossed over in schools today and learning the lessons of the past is so much easier than trying to learn them over again from experience.”

Although Rozendaal was not able to attend, pilot Paul Stojkov was able to make the trip. “We're happy to report that Ryan Miller got an A on his ‘Red Tails’ history project!” said Stojkov. “His teachers were very encouraging and were impressed that our CAF Red Tail team offered so much support including a personal visit.”

Rozendaal reminds us, “The Airmen took an experiment that was designed to prove they could not do the job, and turned it into an opportunity that allowed them to achieve their wildest dreams, and changed the world in the process. They proved that anyone can ‘Rise Above’ adversity with hard work, discipline and focus. That is a great lesson for all young people.”

Thank you Ryan for sharing the inspiring history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen with your classmates!

RISE ABOVE!  

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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“Rocket Boy” pledges support to CAF Red Tail Squadron

“Rocket Boy” pledges support to CAF Red Tail Squadron

If you’ve seen the 1999 hit movie “October Sky” then you might be familiar with the Rocket Boys, the teenagers from West Virginia who were able to change their destiny through science and determination. In 1957, after being inspired by the launch of Sputnik, Homer Hickam, Jr. and his friends, against all odds, designed and built their own rockets… and landed the highest prize at the National Science Fair AND college scholarships that lifted them from a life of coal mining to the halls of NASA.

Jim O’Dell was one of the original Rocket Boys. After graduating high school, O’Dell enlisted in the Air Force, and earned a degree at Colorado State University following his time in the service. He’s no stranger to overcoming adversity; there were few opportunities for young men in the town he grew up in, and going to work in the mine was tough work, and expected. With a passion for rocket science and the will to better his future, O’Dell and his friends learned all they could about rocketry, eventually dazzling their hometown after having to convince everyone, maybe even themselves, that they had the brains to launch their homemade rockets thousands of feet in to the air.

O’Dell has reached out to the CAF Red Tail Squadron with his pledge of support for our mission and our majestic P-51C Mustang. He knows that it’s a collective effort to keep our warbird safely in the air, and he wanted to support our work, and our mission to honor the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. He’s belonged to our donor ranks for some time now, but wanted to make a pledge specifically for the new paint the Mustang greatly needs.

Recently, O’Dell and his family visited the Tuskegee Airmen Monument in Walterboro, South Carolina. It marks an important final training stop at the then Walterboro Army Airfield where the airmen received the final stages of combat training before shipping off overseas. 

“The memorial was beautiful, astounding,” said O’Dell. “I’ve been a donor to the CAF Red Tail Squadron for a long time, and I know these important old planes are worth preserving. Seeing this memorial made me remember what a brave group of men the Tuskegee Airmen were.”

Because O’Dell also served in the Air Force, he personally knows there is something special shared by the service’s band of brothers. He credits the military for changing his life, and can empathize with how the brotherhood of the Tuskegee Airmen changed not only their own lives, but set the stage for positive change for generations to come.

When asked if he would encourage other folks to support the CAF Red Tail Squadron? “Yes, God yes!” he answered emphatically. “That P-51 needs to keep flying. The Tuskegee Airmen are classic, and we need to continue to support them and their legacy.”

O’Dell overcame the weight of his own adversity, and knows sharing the history of the Tuskegee Airmen can inspire others to do the same. “Don’t let an obstacle get in your way,” he said. “If you’ve got a fire in your gut, do it. Whatever it is that you love, do it, no matter what.”

October Sky was adapted from the book Rocket Boys, a memoir written by Hickam and first published in 1998. Both are sources of great inspiration and a timeless story of important life lessons. Like our Guiding Six Principles, much can be achieved if you AIM HIGH and NEVER QUIT.

RISE ABOVE!

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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Honoring the birthday of the legendary B.O. Davis, Jr.

Honoring the birthday of the legendary B.O. Davis, Jr.

On December 18, 1912 Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. He was the son of Elnora Dickerson Davis and Benjamin Davis, Sr., at the time one of only two black combat officers in the US Army, and the distinguished man who would later become our nation’s first black general, the first in any branch of service. Davis, Jr. would go on to play a prominent role with the Tuskegee Airmen, and himself become a pioneer in military leadership for black Americans. Although he was born over 100 years ago, his significance and the respect he commands endure today.

As a boy, Davis developed a keen interest in aviation after attending a barnstorming exhibition at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. where one of the pilots offered him a ride in his plane. This experience set in motion Davis’ passion to one day become a pilot, despite the obstacles he would face simply because of the color of his skin.

After time spent at two other colleges, Davis attended the US Military Academy at West Point with the appointment of the only black congressman serving at the time, Illinois Representative Oscar De Priest. Unfortunately, during his education he was shunned by his fellow cadets, forced to bunk alone and even eat all his meals in isolation. No cadets, faculty or staff members befriended or spoke to him except on an official basis. He was made to feel unwanted and unvalued because of that era’s prevailing ignorant racism. In a show of great perseverance and strength, in 1936 Davis became the fourth African-American to graduate from West Point, and the first in the 20th century, graduating 35th in his class 276 cadets.

After being commissioned as a second lieutenant, he became one of only two black combat officers in the Army, the other being his father. Even after his treatment at West Point, he still had the tenacity and passion to become a pilot but was turned down for flight training because there were no black units in the air service, and therefore he could not be accepted, despite his qualifications. He was eventually placed at the Tuskegee Institute in 1939 as an instructor in their Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, following in his father’s footsteps, and he quickly moved up the ranks. But the passion for flight remained.

In 1941 when the Air Corps Advanced Flying School was activated at Tuskegee, Davis was among the first class of pilot candidates. He became one of only five men to complete the course and then became the first black officer to make a solo flight in an Army Air Corps plane. A dream was realized, and in July 1942 he was assigned as the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, going on to provide exemplary leadership to the Tuskegee Airmen as they prepared for and fought in WWII in the European theater. He flew many successful missions in the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang and was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Davis’ name would become synonymous with the success of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

Davis is credited for playing an important role in the desegregation of the armed forces that finally came about in 1948, helping to draft the Air Force’s plan to carry out this order. He then went on to become the first black graduate of the Air War College, critical to his continued promotion in the Air Force, and again flew missions during war time in the Korean conflict. He continued to rise in the ranks, all while rising above adversity.

Davis’ final promotion to general (four stars), U.S. Air Force, occurred on December 9, 1998. He is our nation’s second African-American general officer, his father Davis Sr. the first. At the ceremony, while addressing other original surviving Tuskegee Airmen, President Bill Clinton said, “To all of us, General Davis, you are the very embodiment of the principle that from diversity we can build an even stronger unity and that in diversity we can find the strength to prevail and advance. If we follow your example, America will always be strong, growing stronger. We will always be a leader for democracy, opportunity, and peace. We will be able to fulfill the promise of our founders, to be a nation of equal rights and dignity for all, whose citizens pledge to each other our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor, in pursuit of that more perfect Union.”

In March of 2015, West Point announced their newest cadet barracks would be named for Davis. “General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. epitomizes the essence of character and honorable living we strive to inspire in every cadet at West Point,” said Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, West Point superintendent. Davis’ struggles may not be erased, but a culture of understanding and gratitude is certainly welcome and due.

Davis passed away in 2002 at the age of 89. We thank him for his example of perseverance, dedication and commitment to country. General Davis, we salute you and honor your memory on your birthday, December 18.

RISE ABOVE!

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: Nicholas Neblett

Portraits of Tuskegee Airmen: Nicholas Neblett

Two decades before Martin Luther King, Jr. led the freedom march in Selma, Alabama to bring awareness to civil rights and the difficulties faced by black voters in the south, the Tuskegee Airmen were paving the way for the eventual end of segregation. Original Tuskegee Airman Nicholas Neblett, like other Airmen that served with the country’s first black pilots and their support personnel, played a role in the movement towards racial justice and today we honor his life and legacy.

Neblett was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he continued to make his home until his passing. When he was drafted into the service during WWII, he entered the flying corps where he eventually earned the unique triple rating of pilot, navigator and bombardier. He was stationed at Midland Army Airfield in Texas, where at that time black pilots were not allowed to land on the main airstrip, but had to find a place to set their aircraft down safely in adjacent crop fields. And like many black service members of that era, Neblett experienced other frustrations of segregation, including being excluded from the officers club. It was an unwelcome lesson in perseverance and patience that people of color where forced to take.

Although Neblett did not deploy overseas, he played a vital role in servicing aircraft stateside. After his service to the US Army Air Corp ended, he went on to have an illustrious career with GE Aviation for 33 years, utilizing his expertise and passion for aviation to test jet engines for the worldwide company.

Nicholas Neblett, Jr., the second youngest of Neblett’s seven children, says his father was a strong, independent man - even into his 90s - that had a solid work ethic and dedication to his family values.

On the occasion that Neblett would speak about his experiences during the war, his family remembers that he would let others speak to the heroics of their experiences, while Neblett felt compelled to speak honestly about the difficult realities faced by black service members. He might have not been the most vocal, but he had the courage to discuss these issues even though they might not be the most popular.

When asked about his father and his history with the Tuskegee Airmen, Neblett, Jr. replies, “My father inspired all of us by his lifestyle and what he meant to our family. We knew that his experience in the segregated military, even as a Tuskegee Airman, only served to make him stronger. He used that to deal with life outside the service, even though racial difficulties extended for decades.”

Neblett’s family knew that his service as a Tuskegee Airman was unique, but unfortunately it took the history books decades to catch up, and the Airmen themselves had to prove themselves to be top-notch bomber escorts before anyone took notice.

“I was born 12 years after my father’s service to our country, and I remember playing in his old uniforms and not realizing the significance of it because I was so young,” recalls Neblett, Jr. “When I was older and in school learning about the civil rights movement, it occurred to me how important my dad was as a Tuskegee Airman. In fact, because the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen never came up in my history classes, I tried to bring in some of his squadron patches and hats, but the teacher would not allow the discussion. It’s taken a lifetime for people to understand and honor the significance of this group of trailblazers.”

Neblett passed away on November 26, 2014 at the age of 93. He was a longtime member of the Cincinnati chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. serving in leadership roles and attending annual conferences. He is an example of strength and integrity that his family has grown from for three generations. Today we salute Nicholas Neblett for fighting for our country and freedom from oppression, both abroad and at home.

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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The little boy with the big heart for the Tuskegee Airmen

The little boy with the big heart for the Tuskegee Airmen

The 2012 box office hit Red Tails bolstered the efforts to bring the story of the Tuskegee Airmen out of obscurity. By putting it on the big screen, millions instantly became aware of these heroes. Even though the movie was Hollywood’s somewhat inaccurate version of history, it did a fantastic job of bringing the Tuskegee Airmen’s importance to the forefront of American culture long enough to spark an affinity for these legendary flyers, especially for a little boy named Quinn Thorne.

Quinn saw the movie that year and was fascinated by the “Red Tail Men,” and then was on a mission of his own to meet them. This was no easy task considering the surviving members are getting quite elderly, and there were no living Airmen near where Quinn lives. Thanks to his father, the generous support of Southwest Airlines and Walter Suggs, president of the Sacramento Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Quinn had a very special surprise for his 5th birthday later that same year. Original Tuskegee Airman Lenard Yates, 87 years young, made the over 1,000 mile journey to meet this little guy in person, who promptly shook the Airman’s hand and thanked him for his service. See this heartwarming surprise unfold here.

Quinn is a little more grownup since that meeting in 2012. And since then his desire to learn about and honor the Tuskegee Airmen has not diminished. His respect for service members has only grown, and he’s demonstrated what a fine young man he is growing up to be.

He has attended four annual conferences of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., where he’s befriended many original Tuskegee Airmen. He is the group’s youngest member, and the only delegate from Idaho. This past September, Quinn, now 9 years old, spoke at the memorial service of original Tuskegee Airmen Calvin Spann. “I’ve known him for four years, and for four years, he’s been my best friend,” he said. “He’ll always be in my heart and in heaven.”

Impressively, Quinn has raised over $4,000 to help veterans, selling fireworks and putting on a car wash. He is a member of his town’s honor guard and was recently sworn in to the Son’s of America Legion, serving as their Assistant Sergeant of Arms of the Department of Idaho.

A movie can be entertaining and history books can be educational, but as in the case with little Quinn Thorne, it can also inspire someone to become a hero in their own rite. This boy is a beautiful illustration of the Tuskegee Airmen’s continued ability to inspire people of all ages to rise above the obstacles in their own lives to achieve their dreams, across generations.

RISE ABOVE!

 

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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Show your support for our P-51C Mustang Tuskegee Airmen during CAF’s 12 Planes of Christmas!

Show your support for our P-51C Mustang Tuskegee Airmen during CAF’s 12 Planes of Christmas!

This month, the Commemorative Air Force is proud to present the 12 Planes of Christmas, a unique giving program designed to raise awareness and needed funds for their fleet of over 164 vintage military aircraft. A fully restored WWII fighter and iconic aircraft of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the CAF Red Tail Squadron’s P-51C Mustang is one of the fleet’s most admired aircraft and part of this fun holiday giving program.

To participate, visit our aircraft’s page from December 1 to December 31 to pledge your support directly to our P-51C Mustang Tuskegee Airmen.

Our Mustang is flown in numerous air shows and events around the country for nine months out of each year in order to reach as many people as possible with our inspirational message. Pledges of support through this year’s 12 Planes of Christmas program will ensure the aircraft’s safe operation and continued ability to honor the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Donating directly to support the maintenance and continued airworthiness of our P-51C Mustang is crucial to our mission. Our aircraft, along with the entire CAF fleet, is an important relic of American history. It requires meticulous attention to detail to ensure its safety and ability to stay in the air for the next generation. Tuskegee Airmen is a museum without walls and your support will help ensure it continues to inspire those who need to hear, see and feel the inspirational message of the Tuskegee Airmen through such a unique vehicle to tell the story.

Pledge your support for this iconic tribute to the legendary Tuskegee Airmen TODAY!

 

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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