Hiram Mann (third from left) was a member of the elite Red Tail pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. Here, he's shown with his fellow airmen at Ramitelli Air Base in Italy in March 1945. That month, the Red Tails escorted Allied bombers from Ramitelli to Berlin, the longest mission in the European theater.
Mann, who flew 48 missions, missed that bombing run in Berlin by a twist of fate: He was grounded because he hadn't had enough downtime between missions. Someone else ended up in his plane, and never made it back.
Charles McGee is a veteran of three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. McGee, who retired as a colonel, told NPR nearly five years ago that the Air Force helped lead the country into integration: "The Air Force said we need to use people based on their training and experience and where needed, not the color of their skin."
Harry Stewart (left) and Robert Friend at the Red Tail reunion in Orlando, Fla., in March. Stewart shot down three German fighter planes in one day, and later won a much-coveted Top Gun contest. More than 60 years ago, he went to Friend's house for dinner, and as he puts it, "Dinner was so much fun, I married his sister."
Leo Gray (from left), Thurston Gaines, John Lyle and William E. Rice stand in front of a P-51C Mustang. Gray organized the reunion, bringing together men who hadn't seen each other for more than 60 years. "The youngest one of us is, what, 85? 86?" he said. "So I wanted to do this before another one of us died."
The war Stewart is referring to is World War II, when the Army was still segregated. Stewart is part of a reunion of Red Tail pilots, members of the 332nd Fighter Group. They're part of the Tuskegee Airmen, an organization composed of World War II fliers and the thousands of people on the ground who made their missions possible.
The event's organizer, Leo Gray, says he realized earlier this year that time was zipping by. One of their members, Lee Archer, considered by some to be the country's only World War II black ace pilot (his plane was emblazoned with five swastikas, one for each German plane downed), died last year.
Gray wanted to bring the remaining pilots together again. "Nothing official," he explained. "I wanted this to be social, to give the guys plenty of time to spend with each other, because you never know what's going to happen, or when somebody's going to go next."
It's a pretty safe guess that "next" may not be too far off: The youngest Red Tail pilot is 86, the oldest 96. Many are infirm and unable to travel. Others could only come with the assistance of younger family members. But about a dozen ended up drinking a little, laughing a lot and sharing war stories.
Tales Of The Red Tails
Alexander Jefferson, a small, trim man with a silver mustache, told of being shot down on Aug. 12, 1944. He was strafing German radar stations when his plane was hit. He lost consciousness after the crash, and awakened to a German pointing a gun at him and shouting, "Naeger! Naeger!"
"I thought, 'Oh, crap — even in Germany!' " Jefferson laughed, shaking his head. "But it turned out he wasn't saying the other word — that was their word for negro."
In fact, the German soldier's commanding officer saluted Jefferson when he took the pilot into custody. "I was treated like an officer the whole time I spent in POW camp," Jefferson said.
Jefferson was poring over photos with Hiram Mann, an ebullient octogenarian whose impish personality earned him the nickname "Gremlin."
Mann said that when he entered the service, he was "a little older than some of the other guys."
"I was 21 and married," he said.
He was reporting back to base to fly an important mission when he was grounded by the base flight surgeon, who thought Mann and his buddies hadn't spent enough downtime before their next flight.
Mann's plane, Boss Lady (his affectionate nickname for his wife), was assigned to another pilot — who didn't make it back. "I often think about it," Mann said. "And I think, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' But he could have been in a different space than I would have been, I don't know."
The date for the gathering, March 24, was chosen to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the Mission to Berlin, the longest nonstop mission in the European theater. The Red Tails took off from their base at Ramitelli, Italy, and accompanied a group of bombers to Berlin, where they destroyed the Daimler Benz tank assembly plant. They returned covered in glory and citations — until they got back to the States.
"Coming back on the boat," Jefferson recalled, "got to New York Harbor, the flags waving, the Statue of Liberty. Walked down the gangplank, and a little soldier at the bottom said, 'Whites to the right, niggers to the left.' "
A Delayed Salute
The Tuskegee Airmen, and especially the Red Tails, would be held up as examples of excellence in the black community for decades.
Robert Martin likes to say he flew 63 1/2 missions during the war. What would have been his 64th ended when he was shot down over then-Yugoslavia.
His daughter Noelle said that growing up, she sometimes had to sit on herself to not brag about her father. "I always wanted to say: There's my dad, and he's a Tuskegee Airman," she said.
Leo Gray's daughter, Kathy Bryant, said she'd think about her father when she was being racially harassed in her workplace and say to herself, "What he did was harder. If he can do it, you can do it."
But they were off much of America's radar screen. Say "war hero," and the visual that came to mind was automatically white. Many of the airmen became involved in the country's civil rights movement, fighting what historians now call a second front.
"We fought fascism and Nazism, and won," said one of the airmen firmly. "Then we had to come home and fight racism. And we were going to win that, too."
They did. The Red Tails' stellar war records demolished the canard that blacks weren't intelligent or coordinated enough to operate airplanes. It forever erased doubts about black pilots' patriotism and bravery. And, said Col. George Hardy, when the Air Force became a separate branch of service after the war, "a lot of officers that had been in the Army Air Force were now in important positions in the Air Force, and they remembered what they'd seen."
The Air Force commissioned a study on integrating the branch in November 1947, and in April 1948, the Air Force announced it would integrate — this was before President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
hide captionFlight Officer John Lyle, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Courtesy of Craig Huntly Collection
Flight Officer John Lyle, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Courtesy of Craig Huntly Collection
It was no small feat. And eventually, the Red Tails received accolades from beyond the black community: In 2007, President George W. Bush (the son of George H.W. Bush, a World War II fighter pilot) presented them with the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda.
At the conclusion of his welcome, Bush told the airmen that he'd like to offer a gesture, a symbol "to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" they had endured over the years. "So on behalf of the office I hold and a country that honors you, I salute you," he said. They saluted back.
Their heightened profile has made them rock stars. At their hotel, the Red Tails couldn't finish meals without being interrupted and asked to sign autographs. Eager parents pushed shy children toward them, asking if they'd take a picture.
"You don't get this now," one mother told her reluctant 4-year-old, "but you'll be glad you have this later on. This is history, honey."
Navy men and women meeting in the Red Tails' hotel asked if they'd speak to their group and take a few photos. The lines went through the lobby as men and women in uniform — and several retired military — waited patiently to have their picture taken with the pilots.
Looking on, Capt. Art Pruitt smiled. "It's funny, we were just watching everybody taking pictures of them — it's like the paparazzi: These guys are rock stars. And to be able to honor them this way, it's just an honor and a privilege."