The War(s) They Fought


Tuskegee Airmen in Italy during World War II. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

toggle caption Bettmann/Corbis

There are three things I've found out here at the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. convention outside Dallas — TAI being a organization that "works to honor the accomplishments and perpetuate the history of the legendary young African-American men who enlisted during WW II to become America's first black military airmen, ground crew and mechanics."

I learned that my uncle was indeed a Tuskegee airman and that I'm officially too old to join the Air Force and/or the Air Force Reserve. I also learned about a medical condition called cupping of the optic disc.

I'll dovetail all that, but it starts like this: Ever since I found out my uncle was a Redtail — the nickname of the Tuskegee Airmen because the tail sections of their planes were painted a bright red — I've wanted to know all about his service, what it was like for him flying in North Africa or Italy. But he never wanted to talk about it. I'm finding that a lot of guys here this week, though they want to keep alive the history of the airmen, don't want to give many details about their personal experiences.

Part of this, I think, is generational. As one of the airmen told me, back then — then being the World War II era — EVERYBODY fought the war: the soldiers in the various theaters and folks on the home front, which really was a home front with rationing and war bond drives and civil defense teams... There was shared sacrifice all around. So, when the war was over, it was over. Everybody lived it. No need to talk about it.

And some memories are just too painful to dig up.

Like cupping of the optic disc. I was talking to a gentleman here named Eldridge Williams, who was telling me the story of his involvement with the Redtails. When the Tuskegee Airmen were formed, Eldridge wanted desperately to fight for his country. Same as a lot of blacks throughout history who wanted to defend freedom, no matter their nation, to that point, had done little for them. Even though we were in a war against oppression, there were still plenty of whites who thought blacks were beneath service. One was a doctor who, Eldridge says, examined him and wrote on his record that Eldridge had cupping of the optic disc.

Eldridge says he had no such thing. When I talked with him, despite his age, Eldridge didn't even need eyeglasses.

Regardless of whether the diagnosis was accurate, Eldridge believes that medical report kept him from flying. Despite the fact that Eldridge says he went on to train airmen at Tuskegee, to help get these young men in the air so that they could fight for our country, Eldridge told me he felt like he'd failed. Failed because he never got the wings he knew he could earn. Failed because he did not challenge the doctor who he said lied on his medical exam.

Eldridge, of course, did not even come close to failing. But such is the pain of the men who wanted not just to serve but to go above and beyond. And such is their stoicism that they rarely complain or seek undue honor. They played things however the dice tumbled, and they moved on.

And I understood why my uncle never talked much about his days with the Redtails.

That's when I went over to the Air Force recruitment stands and found out, yeah, I'm too old.

Hey, here's another take on oppressed people fighting for our freedoms I wrote for The Huffington Post last Fourth of July.



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I think you said it best in your previous article:

Sometimes those without freedom are precisely the ones who cherish it most.

Participation, and not acknowledgement is perhaps what your uncle valued most and was STILL given limited access to. These are the hardships that our forefathers endured.

So many pgs of history have been reworded to discredit African-americans its ridicolous. I recommend someone check out the film "Something the Lord Made" starring Mos Def (that brother acts his butoff in the film) It's a great movie and will give a direct example, to what Im talking about.

Sent by Rashid | 1:30 PM | 8-24-2007

I call your attention to the HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen" aired for the first time more than ten years ago. The film has won numerous awards, stars such great actors as Laurence Fishborne, and is one of HBO's most successful movies ever. It is shown very often across te board on television, and remains a DVD seller as well.

Sent by Robert Markowitz | 5:46 PM | 8-27-2007

Good story
Come to the real Tuskegee and see the story's. 10,000 Tuskegee airmen, 994 pilots, each with a history lesson.
Tuskegee Historian - Jimmy Johnson

Sent by Jimmy Johnson | 8:40 AM | 8-28-2007

This is a moving piece. Although much more could be said, Enough Said. I won't spoil it.

I miss you on "Morning Joe".

Sent by Cheryl | 2:23 PM | 8-28-2007

If you go on youtube (and who doesn't?). and you type into the search 'Jet Pilots,' you will view an interesting array of videos made by jet fighter pilots. Seems as though these guys are a fun-loving, video camera carrying bunch of cut-ups. They love to practical joke. Like the guy's feet hanging down from the belly of a fighter plane coming in for a carrier landing. They love to put music to their vidoes and do crazy dances on carrier decks (or in the nightclubs they are partying). These fighter pilot guys are as fun loving as the Blackwater mercenaries who love to post their videos on youtube.

While I was reading this article about WWII black pilots, something occured to me. Of all those contemporary jet fighter pilot videos downloaded, I don't remember seeing a black jet fighter pilot.

fred call aka bigbro

Sent by fred call | 11:14 AM | 9-6-2007

John, As you know, WWII vets are leaving this earth at a rate of a few thousand a day, and their stories are going with them if folks like you don't jot them down for the rest of us. Thank you for reminding us that WWI was fought and won by real, live people with real names and real stories.

Sent by Montbello | 11:29 PM | 9-9-2007

This wasn't the only way people had their health lied about and suffered for it. An immigration official lied about the health condition of a relative, so he was not allowed into America. He didn't go back to Russia, he went to France. His son survived Aushwitz, He and his wife did not.

If you wish more details, "Of No Interest To The Nation" is a quick read, the author is Gilbert Michlin

Sent by Sarah Michlin | 5:39 PM | 9-10-2007

The pecking order between conservatives and liberals in Washington can be illustrated thusly:

First, big oil and defense contractors own everyone and everything in Washington. The pecking order of oil and defense contract payoffs in Washington follows this pyramid scheme:

The USS Dwight Eisenhower is a supercarrier.

They are currently building the USS Gerald Ford supercarrier.

The USS Ronald Reagan is also an aircraft carrier.

So is the USS George H.W. Bush, the elder Bush, a supercarrier.

I don't know how they are going to name a USS George W. Bush, the junior Bush, without confusing family names. But some day they will build a supercarrier named after Bush Jr.

USS William Jefferson Clinton CVS1: The US Navy welcomed the latest member of it's fleet today. The USS William Jefferson Clinton CVS1 set sail today from it's home port of Vancouver, BC.
The ship is the first of it's kind in the Navy and is a standing legacy to President Clinton and his foresight in military budget cuts. The ship is constructed nearly entirely from recycled aluminum and is completely solar powered with a top speed of 5 knots. It boasts an arsenal comprised of one F14 Tomcat or F18 Hornet aircraft, which although cannot be launched or captured on the 100 foot flight deck, forms a very menacing presence. As a standing order there are no firearms allowed on board. The 20 person crew is completely diversified and includes members of all races, creeds, sex, and sexual orientation.
The ships purpose is not defined so much as a unit of national defense, in fact in times of conflict it's orders are to remain in hiding in Canada, but will be used extensively for social experimentation and whatever shitty jobs the commander in chief and his wife can think of. It is largely rumored that the ship will also be the set for the upcoming season of MTV's "The Real World."

The USS Hillary Clinton, or the Big Hill as she is affectionately known to her complement, is a fictional George Bush Class supercarrier which is the center of much of the action in John Birmingham's Axis of Time Trilogy. It is named after the late Hillary Clinton, the assassinated 44th President of the United States.
At the time of the books, she is commanded by an offscreen Captain Guy Chandler, who is killed in what becomes known as the Transition. Command is assumed by her taskforce commander Admiral Phillip Kolhammer. Admiral Kolhammer soon turns over command to the ship's Executive Officer, Commander Mike Judge, who is subsequently promoted to captain. Shortly after Judge takes command, the Clinton sails into San Francisco Naval Shipyard to be stripped down and have her damage repaired. When the Hillary Clinton returns to sea after two years, under the command of Captain Judge and Admiral Kolhammer as part of Admiral Raymond Spruance's Combined Pacific Task Force, she has been refitted with 1960s era technology.

fred call aka bigbro

Sent by fred call | 7:42 PM | 9-10-2007

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