Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania's Tuskegee Airmen   View more episodes

Aired at 11:00 PM on Tuesday, Jun 09, 2009 (6/9/2009)      View all transcripts from this day


00:00:01Why would we do this for all of these years?
00:00:04Why would we serve a nation that would not serve us?
00:00:08Why would we serve a nation, and when that service was no longer needed because the conflict was over, we went back to the same conditions of oppression and servitude -- why?
00:00:20Man: Nobody had to draft me, I volunteered.
00:00:23Most of the fellas that I served with volunteered.
00:00:27They were not draftees.
00:00:29So, we really wanted to fly, number one, and number two, we wanted to service -- serve our country to the best of our ability.
00:00:39The 99th united states fighter squadron attached to the 8th army is composed entirely of negro pilots.
00:00:46Veterans of 236 missions in africa, the mediterranean, and italy, men of the 99th have a brilliant record for the six months they've been operating overseas.
00:00:56Man: At the time when I went in, they didn't need any more pilots, and that's where the pilots were being trained.
00:01:02What they needed was people to work on those planes.
00:01:05And actually, if you didn't know anything -- the tuskegee airmen didn't need you.
00:01:10I'm going to be truthful about it.
00:01:12If you didn't know anything, they didn't need you, I don't care how black you were.
00:01:17Man: We got people in the early tuskegee airmen from all over the country.
00:01:25I mean, that was the biggest surprise.
00:01:27Well, it wasn't a surprise to us, because we knew there were smart, educated people all over the country.
00:01:33Good athletes, etcetera, and all that.
00:01:35Why so many came from pennsylvania, we haven't figured out yet.
00:01:44♪♪ There's a battle up ahead ♪♪
00:01:48♪♪ fly boy fly ♪♪
00:01:49♪♪ no way you'll win ♪♪
00:01:51♪♪ that's what they said ♪♪
00:01:52♪♪ fly boy fly ♪♪
00:01:53♪♪ though you whip ♪♪
00:01:55♪♪ my flesh may sting ♪♪
00:01:57♪♪ fly boy fly ♪♪
00:01:58♪♪ I'll bear it all ♪♪
00:01:59♪♪ I'll earn my wings ♪♪
00:02:01♪♪fly boy fly♪♪
00:02:02♪♪ fly boy fly ♪♪♪♪
00:02:13Narrator: This is tuskegee university, washington on july 4, 1881.
00:02:22Many of these beautiful buildings that are still in use today were built by the students from nails and bricks that they made.
00:02:30Tuskegee university was awarded the u.s.
00:02:30Army contract to help train america's first black military aviators because it had already invested in the development of an airfield, had a proven civilian pilot-training program, and its graduates performed the best on flight aptitude exams.
00:02:52 charles thompson is a former professor at tuskegee who now heads the tuskegee chamber of commerce.
00:03:02Thompson: The only reason they were here was because of his philosophy.
00:03:05 believed in taking advantage of opportunities regardless of the conditions.
00:03:09And he was a man that firmly believed that, given the chance, we could do and succeed at anything.
00:03:16Narrator: It is still unclear why they are so many tuskegee airmen who call western pennsylvania home.
00:03:22, a retired journalist who is compiling a history on the tuskegee airmen from this area, at least 56 of the pilots and crewmen were born and raised in western pennsylvania.
00:03:37Bobonis: Three pittsburgh pilots lost their lives in combat.
00:03:41They were elmore taylor from the hill district, james ham wright from beltzhoover, carl woods from mars, pa.
00:03:50They were all shot down indogfight battles over europe.
00:03:54But then, when you lookat their record, 15,000 sorties, 1,500 combat missions, 400-and-some planes down, one of their number strafed a destroyer and destroyed that, they had a brilliant battle record that certainly did belie the findings of that bogus report of 1925.
00:04:17So there's no question about that.
00:04:20Man: Now, there had been a staff study done at maxwell army air base which said that blacks were inferior.
00:04:29This was done by psychologists, and they said thatthe brains of black people were smaller than the brainsof white people.
00:04:38And blacks were not able to do the cognitive types of things.
00:04:41They had to have a white leader at all times, they could not have a black leader to lead them into combat.
00:04:47The problem was, that needed to be proved-out, and so they felt that the tuskegee concept could prove or disprove that particular qualification.
00:04:59And so the whole purpose of tuskegee was to prove or disprove that theory.
00:05:04Narrator: Edward harris is a tuskegee airman and a bomber pilot who retired from the air force as a lt. colonel.
00:05:13Man: Yancey williams put a lawsuit in against the government for not letting him be assigned to the aviation cadets, the white air force aviation cadets, and he won the case.
00:05:23And as a result of the naacp, the pittsburgh courier, amsterdam news, and some of the other medias, there was a big meeting in washington with this yancey williams things.
00:05:37And so eleanor told her husband, as a result of that meeting, that he would have to set-up a corps for the blacks so that they could have a chance to at least fly.
00:05:48As a result, that's what brought about tuskegee.
00:05:52Man: But at the same time, there was a faction that said, "why are you going to build a field at tuskegee "to train these pilots, "when 30 miles down the street "in montgomery, alabama, you have maxwell air force base, you have " our government said,"nix, nay, no, can't do that.
00:06:13"You've heard the doctrine,'separate but ' 5 million, "and build this field at tuskegee.
00:06:21"It will be equal to any training base, " Man: You're getting ready to train black men how to fly the most sophisticated weapon of war, and you're bringing them to a little, small, southern black town.
00:06:33I mean, all hell should have broken loose, but it didn't.
00:06:37And there were experiments all over america.
00:06:38The golden 13, the triple nickels, all these other guys that -- who were in these black military experiments.
00:06:45None of them succeeded at the level that the tuskegee airmen did.
00:06:49And I have to believethat the groundwork washingtonby creating an environment where black excellence could thrive and survive.
00:06:57Man: Now, let's get this straight, it was an experiment.
00:07:01It was an experiment.
00:07:02They didn't believeyou could fly.
00:07:05They didn't believe you were smart enough " " now who am I supposed to believe, those people, "they," " don't listen to what "they" think, you do what you know you can do.
00:07:22Man: My little town in sewickley, we probably had, proportionate-wise, the greatest involvement at tuskegee.
00:07:31My brother and i, and there was eight of us, all together from this little town of, oh, maybe 400 or 500 black,or less, of black people.
00:07:43And eight of us at tuskegee -- and out of the eight of us, about five of us, pilots.
00:07:48Man: We were told, "you're the brightest, " this was always drilled in us.
00:07:53"You're the cream of the crop," they used to tell us.
00:07:56And we carried -- most of us carried ourselves that way.
00:08:00Narrator: Carrying yourself a certain way did not mean that they were immune to the segregation policy at the time.
00:08:06Their trip to tuskegee was a point of humiliation for many of them.
00:08:11Man: So I got on a norfolk, a train with a norfolk and western engine, we headed west into the sun, it was the afternoon.
00:08:21We made a left turnand we didn't stop until we got tomissi-damn-ssippi, I swear.
00:08:28It was unbelievable.
00:08:30We're on the train together, white and black recruitsall through the train, sitting next to eachother, sitting on -- we get to the capital of ourcountry, washington, , and they stopped the train.
00:08:43They didn't have to stop, they stopped the train and then they made all of the african-americans, quote, "colored fellas," go to the first two cars and the whites stayed in the back.
00:08:56Why would you want to fight for a country that treated you like that?
00:09:01Narrator: No one knew the answer to that question better than colonel b.o. davis, jr.
00:09:06He was a graduate of west point, were he endured the silent treatment.
00:09:11No white cadet spoke to him unless necessary for the entire four years that he was there.
00:09:17, the first black general in the united states army, he was well-suited to lead the tuskegee airmen.
00:09:27meanwhile, the war department was producing propaganda films, hoping to convince negroes to join the fight against nazism, using heavy-weight fighters joe lewis and max schmeling as symbols of good and evil.
00:09:42Now, those two men that were matched in the ring that night are matched again.
00:09:48This time in a far greater arena, and for much greater stakes.
00:09:53Max schmeling, a paratrooper in the nazi army -- men turned into machines, challenging the world.
00:10:01Joe lewis training for the fight of his life.
00:10:03Man: Pick it up! pick it up!
00:10:05Narrator: What the film didn't show was the kind of discrimination that nearly poisoned every step of the airmen's training.
00:10:13Man: We went over, about five or six of us, over there, to get this examination.
00:10:21And we went in the door to sit down in the waiting room, you know, and somebody intercepted us and said, "oh, no, no, you can't do -- go back, go back, you can't --" and we -- they ushered us outside the door and around, behind, behind the house, come in through the back door.
00:10:45And we hadn't seen any signs out in front.
00:10:48And they said, "no, colored has to go this " so we came in, and not a separate waiting room, in the same damn room, but you couldn't come in through the front door, and we asked what we had to undergo, and we wanted our license, you know, to fly, so we underwent that humility.
00:11:09Man: It was rough, because there was a fake-out in play, in a sense, in that the examinations they took at home, which they had to pass, which were rigorous.
00:11:21Then they were sent to mississippi where they trotted out a whole 'nother set of, uh, qualifying programs, and many of them had to go yet to a third field.
00:11:32So you could see, the cream did rise to the top, because only those who passed that second test went on to tuskegee for training, and not all of them made it, not all of them made it.
00:11:45Man: There were three phases of training for aviation cadets -- was, primary, basic, and advanced.
00:11:52And they had two sections in each one of those -- upper and lower.
00:11:57The primary phase of training was at moton field.
00:12:01All the instructors there were black instructors, and the actual military field was about 10 miles away, and that was called tuskegee army air field.
00:12:16And that's where you learned your basic training and your advanced training prior to going into a combat unit.
00:12:24You had to do your studying, you had to be able to answer questions, academic or practical or whatever, pertaining to aviation that they may have for you.
00:12:34And most of all, you had to be sharp.
00:12:36You had to look sharp.
00:12:37Your uniforms, your flying suit, your personal appearance.
00:12:41You had to be a part of the system.
00:12:44Man: And the training was adopted from the training that they got at west point, and also at the naval academy.
00:12:53So we underwent the same type of rigorous training that was done in those two military institutions.
00:13:00And they were trained to run a tough ship, which they did do.
00:13:05The army was painfully slow in setting up the tuskegee air base and giving them assignment to go overseas.
00:13:15And thereby hangs that particular tale.
00:13:17They were trained and ready, and they were shifting them, over-training them, really.
00:13:22Man: Now, "hurry up and wait" began to set in.
00:13:29Because once we transitioned in the p-40 and went down to florida, filled all the squares for tactical training, passed the operational readiness inspection, we thought we'd be in combat by thanksgiving of 1942.
00:13:48We were still at tuskegee army air field.
00:13:51Christmas, we were back in florida for the third time, going through the same tactical training in tallahassee, florida, at dale mabry field.
00:14:02We didn't get into combat until easter, april of 1943, some 10 months after we had qualified for overseas.
00:14:14What was the problem?
00:14:16No commander from burma to england wanted this all-black fighter squadron in their command.
00:14:24They said we'll create problems, that the black officers, socially, would want to be equal to the white officers, and they were convinced that no white non-commissioned officer or enlisted man would take an order from a black.
00:14:41SO THEY DIDN'T WANT THE 99th.
00:14:44Therefore, easter sunday morning of 1943, the 99th arrived at casablanca, north africa, and we were assigned to the desert air force.
00:14:55Narrator: What the tuskegee airmen were trained and known for was being pursuit pilots, escorting bomber planes to their targets.
00:15:04But their first combat role in north africa was as air support for combat troops.
00:15:08Often more dangerous than dog fights.
00:15:13Man: We thought we'd be like british spitfires AND AMERICAN P-38's And the others up at 8,000, 10,000 feet, as pursuit pilots, which we had trained for, but our new mission, we were told, would be close tactical ground support.
00:15:32There on the desert floor.
00:15:35Gun replacements, tanks, fuel dumps, ammunition dumps, motor transports on the highway, locomotives on the railways.
00:15:46Anything moving, kill it.
00:15:49Support the allied armies in their move through french morocco up towards tunisia.
00:15:58Man: They were consummate risk takers.
00:16:02Ultimately, it came down to human nature and their willingness to accept the danger risk and following through to try to minimize the danger and complete the task.
00:16:14Either you're stupid or you enjoy it.
00:16:17And my viewpoint was that I'm arrogant enough to think that no one would be able to shoot me down.
00:16:23I got shot up a number of times, but not shot down.
00:16:27Man: We were above 500 feet, we were too high to find those targets on the desert floor.
00:16:35Therefore, we were down in the thick of very accurate, intense anti-air craft fire.
00:16:42[ Anti-air craft fire ] and you see nothing but your target, and you keep your sight on that target until you pull the trigger, or till you pull the handle and release that bomb, and pull away, and then as you get out of it, look back, and see what your other parts, your flights are going in, you realize what you've just come through, and how lucky you are that your plane is still airborne.
00:17:15And some of it, if it hit you, it didn't hit a vital spot.
00:17:19And you'd come back sometimes and do an inspection and there are holes that you had no idea when you got hit.
00:17:29Man: The first dog fight, I had a fella i flew wing with, his name was wendell pruitt.
00:17:38And pruitt was from the st. louis area.
00:17:42He and I were ace buddies, no question about it.
00:17:45We thought the two of us together were the greatest duet in the history of man, and in fact we got the reputation as "the gruesome twosome," that these two idiots loved combat, they went looking for it.
00:17:59Well, we all went looking for it.
00:18:01He and I were more successful in finding it.
00:18:03Yesterday I fulfilled one of my ambitions as a combat pilot.
00:18:08I got one airplane.
00:18:09Man: They had to be willing to take their life into their own hands, because the life of a combat pilot over there in the -- during the course of the war was something like minutes.
00:18:19Your time in an airplane was worth about a minute and a half.
00:18:23That the average pilot was killed in that amount of time of flying was one -- one minute and a half of a life expectancy.
00:18:32Man: Once they decided there would be black pilots, then they decided, "well, of course we have to get "black support people to service them.
00:18:42"Because none of our men would want to touch any plane flown by a " everybody talksabout the pilots, the pilots, the pilots.
00:18:49The pilots are great, but without somebodyto maintain the airplanes, you don't fly.
00:18:57The most important people are the people who preparedthe airplanes to fly.
00:19:06Narrator: William hicks grew up in homewood, and served as a mechanic with the tuskegee airmen in italy.
00:19:13He takes pride in his service in the u.s.
00:19:14Army air corps, and the fact that he can still wear his uniform.
00:19:22Man: I've always wanted to mention the pride that the ground crew, that they had in working on their planes.
00:19:31A lot times, when people ask me, " I said, "well, yes, I was in the tuskegee " " I say "no, I was not a pilot.
00:19:42"But I'll tell youthis about the pilots.
00:19:46"They will be the first to tell you "that without the men on that ground crew, " Man: Many of the mechanics were college graduates, but they wanted to be a part of the operation, and being physically -- may have been nothing but astigmatism where they couldn't pass the flying physical.
00:20:17But they would sacrifice that and go to chanute field, and become top-notch mechanics, and that's why the quality we had in those organizations was so profound.
00:20:31Narrator: Elaine effort is a daughter of a tuskegee airmen mechanic.
00:20:36She remembers the pride her father, vurnol vincent leaphart had, when he worked on the planes.
00:20:44Woman: I think the pilots knew that the fellas that were working on the ground were just as important as the ones flying the planes.
00:20:52Because those planes were kept in excellent condition, they weren't going to sputter and -- and die out and stall up in the air.
00:21:02And imagine having thatlevel of confidence that, "this machine thati'm getting in, this plane, " Man: The p-40 was a used plane.
00:21:15That's all we got, were used planes, hand-me-downs, you know, just like a used car.
00:21:23And we tried to restore those things, and I give the pilots a lot of credit, that they got up and flew those things after we worked on them.
00:21:32You know, that was amazing.
00:21:34So we tried to do the very best we could so that they would be protected.
00:21:39I mean, we didn't want them to go down in a bad spot, so we tried to protect them in every way.
00:21:46We took, we took pride in that.
00:21:48And I tell you, it really makes you feel good to see one of those planes go out to the target and come back, and you know, it made it all the way.
00:22:00Boy, that was, that was some damn thing.
00:22:03Man: Periodically you would think about the mission you were going on, and whether or not it was going to be very dangerous, but you simply said, "well, it's my mission," and you become sort of a fatalist, and if it's time, it's time.
00:22:23And if it isn't, then I'll be back tomorrow to try it again.
00:22:28"What was it like to send the men out " I'll tell you the truth, sometimes it was kind of agonizing.
00:22:37That was especially true if you had become close to one of the men.
00:22:42You'd sit there and you'd wait, and a thousand thoughts just go through your head.
00:22:48"I wonder if I did this right.
00:22:50" and you sit there and you wait until you see that roaring coming over the hill -- you know they're back.
00:23:05And I'll tell you the truth, when you've worked on one, you're only looking for that one number.
00:23:11You're looking for the rest, but you're looking " I'll tell you -- it was rewarding and also antagonizing to feel as though, "well, I just hope " it was a really good feeling when everyone came back and you said "oh, boy, that's good, that's good.
00:23:34We made it," yep.
00:23:37Narrator: In 1936, b.o. davis, jr.
00:23:39Wanted to serve in the air corps, but there were no black units, and he was turned down.
00:23:46Man: He was a captain then, captain b.o.
00:23:47Davis, jr.
00:23:50They would not train him to be a pilot because they had no training for blacks, and they wouldn't accept him with the white situation.
00:23:57So, he had to wait until this time.
00:23:59Narrator: davis, jr.
00:24:03Kept a tight rein on his group.
00:24:06Man: We called him the old man.
00:24:09He was maybe the only one that would ever had been able to hold our group together and to discipline those wild guys over there in europe, which required the strict discipline of a west pointer of the caliber of benjamin o. davis.
00:24:30Man: What a day it was when he assembled with the first 12 pilots of the 99th pursuit squadron, which was the first one, fighter group.
00:24:43Imagine this, that here's a young, handsome guy out of west point.
00:24:49Built to the army tradition, despite the prejudice, and he was the chosen one to lead this crew.
00:24:57Man: Young benjamin davis was a different kind of person.
00:25:01We've never recognized just how important he was to the tuskegee airmen and to america.
00:25:07He was a tough rider.
00:25:08And he had a greater visionthan most of us did.
00:25:14He knew that if we failed,we would be saying to those americans who hadcontempt and bias against us, " and there was no way that hewas going to let that happen.
00:25:34Man: He was like a father to us, and a good father.
00:25:40The men, I think, loved him and respected him.
00:25:46I never heard him raise his voice.
00:25:48I don't know ofanyone that ever said that he was nasty to them.
00:25:53I mean, none of the pilots, noneof the officers, any of them.
00:25:58Narrator: Inspired by davis' leadership, the tuskegee airmen made a name for themselves escorting heavy bombers to their targets and back.
00:26:08Man: The first break came in january and february of 1944 over anzio, when we were given the mission of protecting that invasion where america and the allied armies were re-invading italy.
00:26:24And we had the first opportunity to come in direct contact at altitude with the german luftwaffe, and in the first two weeks of operation, we shot down 17 aircraft.
00:26:40So, no -- no more, no longer could they say that the black man could not fly and fight, because when the opportunitypresented itself and we could engage,we did and we were successful.
00:26:55Narrator: Shortly after that engagement, the 99th and 332nd pursuit squadrons were assigned to bomber escorts.
00:27:03James shuster, originally from freeport, pa, was a b-24 pilot.
00:27:10Man: We got bounced pretty bad by fighters and the squadron, when they set up the group, it consists of four boxes.
00:27:18Able, baker, charlie and dog box.
00:27:23Each box contains 10 aircraft.
00:27:26So when things like that happen,you're being cut to pieces.
00:27:31[ Gunfire ] we began to escort bombers, and after several, 50 or so missions, the bomber crews we heard began to talk about how the 332nd were so different in their escort techniques.
00:27:53They would stay with them and get them to the target, protect them from the interceptors and get them back home.
00:28:02So, we said, "well, we'd better get a real " and we decided to paint the tails OF ALL 72 OF THOSE P-51s RED.
00:28:13And we became known as the red tails.
00:28:17Narrator: Chester gill remembers when his brother, edwin, who served as a flight engineer, had to jump into the pilot's seat when his bomber was hit.
00:28:27Man: He said, as they made their turn to come back, all of a sudden there was a big piece of shrapnel that came right through the window, hit his pilot right in the head, took half of his head off.
00:28:41He said that the co-pilot said, "get him out of the chair,i need you to help " so, he had to lift him out,get the blood off then sit down.
00:28:51The germans came flying in, and they were taking pot-shots at them, and then, all of a sudden, they heard, "we are the tuskegee pilots, we're over your head.
00:29:02You keep going and we'll take care of the " and he said they just went, they kept on going until they landed, and when they did land, the people on the crew, the ground crew, thought, "how in the hell did you ever get back with all the holes " but they made it.
00:29:25If the tuskegee pilots wouldn't have came, they would have been shot right down.
00:29:32Man: That's what the german luftwaffe did.
00:29:35They'd pick out one squadron and so on and make a mess of it.
00:29:39Fortunately, we were escorted a number of times by the tuskegee airmen.
00:29:45My hat was always off to them.
00:29:48They were good flyers and they flew us close-cover, they stayed in close, took good care of us.
00:29:56And they were good, they were real flyers.
00:30:00Man: Flying through all this flak, it makes you shudder.
00:30:06But I escaped it.
00:30:09I never thought that I would survive it.
00:30:13I had no thoughts of ever coming home.
00:30:16We were escortedby the tuskegee airmen, we called them "the red-tails,"and they flew THE P-51s.
00:30:23That was a comfort blanket, it made you feel safer.
00:30:28If you got into trouble, there was help.
00:30:32Our technique was simple, you stayed with the bombers.
00:30:36You didn't allow yourself to be decoyed or drawn off where you would open up a window and the german interceptors could come in and hit the bomber train.
00:30:46And they'd come down on the formation, what would they see first but those red-tails, sitting there like a bunch of mother hens over those bombers, and they would warn them off and get those bombers safely back across the alps into italy and get them home.
00:31:10Man: "They're sending bombers into germany every day "and hundreds of americans are being killed.
00:31:20" "well, we've got these black pilots down there "flying mop-up missions and so-forth, " well, now, all of a sudden, these guys start going into germany, coming out,and everybody's alive.
00:31:40Going in, coming out,and everybody's alive.
00:31:43Well, this was the first time in the history of american military conflict that black soldiers were in day-to-day contact with white soldiers in life-threatening situations.
00:31:55And every day, they exceeded expectations.
00:31:59After a few times, no matter how deep-dish racist you are, and how much your grand-daddy told you about, "these negroes can't do what," you have a change of mind, because you are a part of this.
00:32:16These guys are saving your life, and then you have a change of heart.
00:32:20That's a place you can't return from.
00:32:22I heard it rumored that the reason they were held back was because their depth perception, as a race, wasn't as good as white people.
00:32:34Once they got into the air, they had a natural rhythm to them that -- they handled it very nicely, my hat was off to those fellows.
00:32:43Man: I remember, we could tune in on their radio, had a different channel then, and occasionally I would turn in on their channel and I would hear them chatting and it was -- it was funny, they had some stories to tell.
00:32:57Man: I have to tell you the story of the black pilots.
00:33:02THE P-51s PEELED OFF, HEADED TOWARD THEIR Base, and he said, before they couldswitch radio channels, he heard this voice say, "black ace to black base, " Narrator: Not all of the tuskegee airmen faced combat in europe.
00:33:23Many were assigned to become bomber pilots with the all-black 477th bombardment wing.
00:33:30Their greatest contribution would not come in combat, but in the field of civil rights.
00:33:36Man: I've often said that, long before martin luther king's effort, the tuskegee airmen set a tone and a pace that had much to do with that first thrust and movement toward america's facing up to the fact that a man is a man, is a man, and you've got to accept a man for his individual capabilities and qualifications, not the pigmentation of his skin, his race, his creed, or his color.
00:34:09Man: The beginning of the civil rights era began with the tuskegee incident, or tuskegee uprising,or tuskegee mutiny, whatever you want to call it, that occurred atfreeman field, indiana, where the colonel of the base there denied black officers the privilege of entering the officers' club.
00:34:32Man: One, you have to realize, first of all, that it was army regulation that predated world war ii.
00:34:39It provided that thereshould be no discrimination among officer personnel byreason of race, creed or color.
00:34:45I felt that it was not rightbecause we were officers, and that was an officers' club.
00:34:51They wanted us to go to what was, at the time, the noncommissioned officers' club.
00:34:57And we were all commissioned officers, and I thought we were entitled to go to the officers' club.
00:35:02We were determined, of course,that when we got there, that we wouldn't wouldn'tadhere to any such policies.
00:35:11And a group of guyswent to the club.
00:35:14I was greeted by a white major or light colonel, " I said, "thank you, sir," and went in.
00:35:28I got in and I sat down.
00:35:30I didn't go into the bar or any other part of the club, I just sat down.
00:35:37Man: The colonel, the base commander, robert selway, he was a white commander, had gotten wind of this intentions.
00:35:45So they had what they call moles within our group that somehow or another got information to mr. charlie.
00:35:55On that night there were 69 of us.
00:35:57Three of them deserve mentioning.
00:36:00Bill terry was convicted.
00:36:01Clinton and marshall thompson were acquitted.
00:36:04My friend bill terry actually had a physical contact with him, going through the door.
00:36:12And of course, as you might have heard, he was later convicted in a court martial proceedings after we were all arrested.
00:36:22After about a week or so, we were released from arrest to quarters, all 69 of us.
00:36:32And the whole group was gathered in a large gymnasium.
00:36:38This base regulation was put before us, and we were asked to sign that we'd read and understood it.
00:36:46But there were those of us who felt that to sign it was to give in.
00:36:53Man: 101 Of us then refused, even in the face of a threatened court martial, which was that time -- disobedience of a direct order was even punishable up to death by firing squad.
00:37:08So we go back to godman field.
00:37:11At godman field, we, 101 of us, the best and the brightest, NEGROES, ARE GREETED BY ARMED WHITE MPs.
00:37:23Man: We were escorted by bayoneted soldiers into those vehicles and transported back to the barracks that we had left with armed guards.
00:37:34We weren't locked up in rooms, but we weren't -- we were confined to a certain area, and not permitted to go outside that area.
00:37:44We could see the german prisoners of war doing the yard duty and their various physical duties as they had been assigned.
00:37:53But they had freedom of movement all over the base.
00:37:57And we were confined to this one area, but we could see them from our barracks and see just what was going on.
00:38:05After 30 days or so we were released from arrest to quarters with an administrative reprimand.
00:38:14We typed 99 separate responses, in which we outlined our grievances and refuted the idea that we had failed our country and our command, which was in the administrative reprimand.
00:38:29It showed both courage, principle, and discipline of those young officers that refused orders from superior officers.
00:38:47Colonel selway was a part of that debacle that forced a situation that was illegal in the first place.
00:38:57And that was one of the reasonswhy he was relieved.
00:39:01He was relieved because he wanted the extreme segregation to persist on those air bases, even though they weren't supposed to.
00:39:10Man: From what I saw of him and what I saw of his practices, he was a redneck s.o.b.
00:39:18We stood our ground.
00:39:21The command was ousted.
00:39:23Selway was gone.
00:39:25They brought b.o. davis back from europe.
00:39:28Man: When the allies were having so much difficulty in the pacific after the war in europe, acre was second-in-command of the entire air forces, hap arnold was the supreme commander and acre was the second-in-command, and he actually appeared in kentucky there when davis took over from selway.
00:39:55I shall have an opportunity later today to tell your officers of our immediate plans for you.
00:40:02And they will communicate those plans to you today.
00:40:06I'm happy to say this now, however, our plans for this organization definitely include their active participation in the war against the japanese.
00:40:18Man: That was the best thing that could have happened to us because we moved up quickly, we were able to get ourselves together and go on and get ready for combat.
00:40:26Narrator: But the 477th never made it to the pacific.
00:40:31In 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on hiroshima and nagasaki, ending world war ii.
00:40:40The unit was disbanded, but the american military would never be the same.
00:40:47Man: No longer in our military will there be segregated units.
00:40:53It's inefficient, ineffective, dehumanizing, and not a part of the military.
00:41:02So, since 1949, we have had an integrated military establishment that stands today as the most diversified group of workers that you have in america in any organization.
00:41:19Not only that, but the gender gap was broken.
00:41:25So it doesn't matter, now, whether you're green, brown, or yellow, or what your gender.
00:41:32If you can qualify to do your job, you are accepted.
00:41:38Narrator: Pilots like herbert carter completed distinguished air force careers and retired.
00:41:44He was also awarded the french legion of honor in paris in 2004.
00:41:50Edward harris also had a distinguished air corps career serving in integrated combat units in korea.
00:41:56Man: I was the only black pilot in the whole group.
00:42:00And everybody was eyeing me because they were worried, "well, am I going to be assigned to this guy, " so they assigned me my crew, and after we had some camaraderie and we flew together for a while, they got used to me.
00:42:17Despite their distinguished military flying careers, once the airmen retired from the service, they found it difficult to land jobs in commercial aviation.
00:42:28All the pilots we had, my god.
00:42:31Not one of them got hired by an airline.
00:42:35Not one.
00:42:36I went out to allegheny airlines and showed my credentials, and he looked and scratched his head, he says, " he says, "in fact, none of the airlines hire " he says, "you can probably get a job, I can refer you "to some of our affiliates " or, he says, "you could go down to south america and fly, "there are some black pilots flying there, "out of brazil and that area.
00:43:05"Or you could go overseas in africa " this country put a hurting on you, boy.
00:43:12My brother, for instance, he couldn't get a job as an airline pilot.
00:43:16He was in the reserves, he could go over and fly those airplanes all in the military, but they wouldn't give him a job.
00:43:23Now they couldn't say it's because he couldn't fly, " he's already a pilot.
00:43:30What's the reason?
00:43:32"Keep you in your place," what place?
00:43:34I never really thought of running into a stone wall like we did.
00:43:39Applicants, not only myself, but from all over the country.
00:43:44It was 20 years later before blacks were given any interest.
00:43:52Narrator: Martha johnston wilkins' brother, bill johnston, one of the sewickley eight, was upset, but not bitter, in his attempts to get an airline job.
00:44:02Woman: He tried for at least eight years to get a job as a pilot with any of the corporations, and he had the qualifications,he had, everything was in order, they would even go as faras to fly him to their offices, but when he got there and saw the color of his skin, the door was closed.
00:44:20So, he would come back home and try again, and he had that perseverance, he wanted to really be a commercial pilot.
00:44:28After distinguishing ourselves in combat in europe, we thought that things would be rectified.
00:44:36But the fellas that returned from combat in europe returned to the same-old, same-old problems that they'd left getting here.
00:44:47Man: They weren't welcomed home like the other heroes returning from they used to have the ticker-tape parades in new york city with the boats landing and all, and the black returned veterans were directed into segregated facilities immediately after getting off the boat.
00:45:08Narrator: If a nation wasn't grateful, many family members were.
00:45:12Russell williams remembers his uncle charles, who was a tuskegee airman.
00:45:16Man: I wish he was here, if he's not in spirit.
00:45:20But I wish he was here to see it.
00:45:21He'd be really proud that I preserved this stuff for him.
00:45:24When he got out of the service, he was a frustrated man,you know, because he couldn'tfly commercial.
00:45:32He worked in the mill, he went to college, he'd see his comrades in the mill, black and white, and he used to tell them he was an airman at world war ii, but no one believed him.
00:45:44That was a very high level, to be a flyboy.
00:45:46And when he'd come home, he'd tell people, "i was a flyer in world war ii," and they'd say, "charlie," you know, "you're full of it, man, there were no such things " I think that's one of the reasons why he never brought out his pictures.
00:46:04He kept those well hidden and tucked away.
00:46:10Narrator: Albert johnson grew up in a tight-knit family in the hill district.
00:46:14He idolized his older brother robert, and followed him into the military, where albert eventually retired as a full colonel.
00:46:23Man: He was my idol, number one, and number two, to havea brother that was a pilot?
00:46:28Oh, man, this was,this was good stuff.
00:46:30He was a fantastic person.
00:46:32You had to know him to really understand how really good he was.
00:46:38He took the path of challenge.
00:46:41If it was something that could be done and looked like it was interesting, he wanted to do it.
00:46:48He sent these two pictures, they actually were in a double frame.
00:46:55And the frame is worn out, it's been used so much.
00:47:01At the end of his leave, he went right into individual combat training, and it wasn't too much longer after that that the accident happened.
00:47:13It was an air-to-air collision.
00:47:16The bombers were scheduled to rendezvous with the fighters at 11,000 feet.
00:47:23They came out of this cloud bank and the bombers were sitting right in front of them.
00:47:28There was nothing that robert could do to get out of the way.
00:47:32Unfortunately, robert hit the tail section.
00:47:36Twelve people lost their lives, including robert.
00:47:40It was right before christmas.
00:47:50And, it was a nice day, I think it was sunny outside.
00:47:55And one of my sisters, I can't remember whether it was edith or ruth, answered the door.
00:48:07And the escort officer, a guy by the name of pete anders, came in and told mom.
00:48:19He had spoken to dad downstairs.
00:48:23Dad came upstairs behind him.
00:48:32And he told mom in the hallway.
00:48:38And she screamed -- and started crying and went into the living room, and that's where we learned what had happened.
00:48:52It was the father of the pilot of the b-24 that was involved in the wreck who wrote a very derogatory article to the newspaper about allowing black people to fly.
00:49:10My father answered that with an article of his own, and basically told the man that it was unbelievable that he could have a son smart enough to learn how to fly and still be as bigoted as he was.
00:49:33Every time I do something, I wonder whether I should be involved in it or do I really want to do it.
00:49:41I think about robert, and I know what his answer would be.
00:49:45" because that's the kind of person he was.
00:49:52Narrator: That was the kind of men they all were.
00:49:57So a fitting and lasting memorial for the airmen is being established at moton field in tuskegee, alabama.
00:50:05Deanna mitchell is the site manager for the national park service.
00:50:09Woman: It's very important that the national park service does what ever it can doto preserve the legacy of the tuskegee airmenand moton field.
00:50:19This ties directly into what those airmen went through and what they lived.
00:50:25So, being able to be mandated by congress to restore this and to preserve this for generations to come is very, very significant, because not everybody in this country had an opportunity to learn about the lecy of the airmen, because it was never really taught in school.
00:50:43People don't realize, but there were quite a few women involved in the tuskegee airmen experience.
00:50:49There were some women who were aircraft mechanics, and they trained side-by-side.
00:50:57There was also females who were supporting the staff offices.
00:51:01 mildred carter, she worked for tuskegee army airfield.
00:51:07Woman: I was a secretary, and I had a job at tuskegee army airfield in the commandant of cadets office.
00:51:15And of course, he was a cadet at the time.
00:51:19When the commandant found out that he was my boyfriend, he was not allowed to come to headquarters, even though he was the cadet captain.
00:51:30So, it was a rocky romance.
00:51:32WE MARRIED ON AUGUST 21st.
00:51:36I thought it was a long time.
00:51:40I'd been waiting all that time for him to get his commission.
00:51:44I wasn't going to marry anybody who didn't get their wings and second lieutenant.
00:51:51Mitchell: I believe that the legacy that they've left here is freedom.
00:51:59Because, no matter how difficult things become in life, if you stick through it, and if you stay with it, just as they did, it does bring about change, and freedom is change.
00:52:12They grabbed that opportunity, and they were ready.
00:52:16That's the message that I believe that they've left for youngsters coming up today.
00:52:22You've got to be ready for when your tuskegee happens.
00:52:26You've got to be ready to seize that freedom.
00:52:29Narrator: On march 29, 2007, more than 60 years after the start of world war ii, bushacknowledged a debt that was long overdue.
00:52:46The tuskegee airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation for the better.
00:52:53Yours is the story of the human spirit, and it ends like all great stories do.
00:53:00With wisdom and lessons and hope for tomorrow.
00:53:05And the medal that we confer today means that we're doing a small part to ensure that your story will be told and honored for generations to come.
00:53:19[ Applause ] and I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities.
00:53:36And so on, by the half -- on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the united states of america.
00:53:49[ Applause ] quite frequently in the past, I've met people who have seen me in uniform or notice my wings on,or something, and they said, "thank youfor your service to our country, " and I've always said, "thank you, and on behalf " but today is very, very special.
00:54:21At a time when the congress of the united states, the house of representatives and the senate and the president of the united states say, "thank you, we can pay you back again," my comment is, "paid in full." thank you.
00:54:41[ "I'll fly away" plays ] ♪♪ some bright morning ♪♪
00:54:49♪♪ when this life is over ♪♪
00:54:51♪♪ I'll fly away ♪♪
00:54:59♪♪ to a home on ♪♪
00:55:00♪♪ god's celestial shore ♪♪
00:55:02♪♪ I'll fly away ♪♪
00:55:05♪♪ fly away ♪♪
00:55:08♪♪ I'll fly away ♪♪
00:55:11♪♪ oh, glory ♪♪
00:55:14♪♪ I'll fly away ♪♪
00:55:19♪♪ when I die ♪♪
00:55:20♪♪ hallelujah, bye bye bye bye bye ♪♪
00:55:24♪♪ I'll fly away, yeah ♪♪
00:55:30♪♪ just a few more weary days ♪♪
00:55:33♪♪ and then I'll fly away ♪♪
00:55:40♪♪ to a land where ♪♪