Tuskegee Airmen bring history to Lakeland

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 20, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

The Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black outfit that fought both American prejudice and Nazi militarism, sent two of its own to Lakeland High School on Thursday.

They were there to discuss their experiences and to describe how they felt when they were finally allowed to live out their dreams of flying.

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The two airmen were originally slated to speak with the school’s ROTC students. However, once word got out, the entire student body was eager to hear the men speak, said Maj. Dale Blake, senior instructor of Lakeland’s ROTC program.

&uot;The students learned of what the Tuskegee Airmen contributed during World War II as well as to race relations at that time,&uot; said Blake. &uot;They certainly paved the way for much of the Civil Rights movement.&uot;

One young ROTC student, Tech Sgt. Joshua Batchelder, a junior at Lakeland, said he was honored to actually meet the airmen.

&uot;I know a lot about the Tuskegee Airmen, …things like they never lost a single bomber,&uot; said Batchelder, who already decided to make the military his career.

Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps did not employ blacks in any role. However in1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Air Corps to build an all-black flying unit.

The presidential order caused the Army to create the 99th Pursuit Squadron, and the Army Air Corps opened a new training base in central Alabama, at the Tuskegee Institute, to prepare the pilots.

&uot;In March 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, only five men received the silver wings of Army Air Forces pilots,&uot; said retired Chief Master Sgt. Grant S. Williams Sr. &uot;Before these five men entered the program, blacks were continuously excluded from aviation training programs in the military.&uot;

By the end of WWII, almost 1,000 African-Americans had won their wings at Tuskegee, Williams said.

&uot;It was called the ‘Tuskegee Experience,’&uot; said Williams, a member of the Tidewater Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. &uot;It was to refute a 1925 study that said people of color did not have the mental capacity or the physical dexterity to fly airplanes.

&uot;I was only 22 years old then, but I knew that I wanted to fly more than anything.&uot;

Williams added that he quickly proved the inferiority theories wrong.

By the time he left for Tuskegee, he was serving as a first sergeant. He was promoted to the rank of master sergeant shortly thereafter.

&uot;We didn’t realize at the time what was going on – what was being said of us,&uot; said Williams. &uot;We were just doing our jobs, and hoping that it would change things back at home.

&uot;When we got back from overseas, however, we found that nothing had changed. We were still treated as inferiors – even disembarking the boat – it was colored and white – the exits.&uot;

Both airmen said they were disappointed at their stateside reception because they knew they had helped fly many good missions and done their jobs well.

Retired Lt. Col. Francis L. Horne Sr., historian for the local organization, was 20 when he became an airman.

&uot;We were thought of as inferior, and some of us even felt inferior,&uot; said Horne. &uot;I was a private first class and a radio repairman and an airplane mechanic’s helper. I didn’t believe I was inferior.&uot;

After all these years, the Air Force finally conceded to allow Horne the experience of flying.

&uot;I always wanted to be a fighter pilot and never had the chance,&uot; said Horne. &uot;They heard of us and made arrangements for me to have a courtesy visit on an F-15. It’s something that I always dreamed of.

&uot;It was the Air Force who denied our flying and then the Chief of Staff made arrangements for me to fly. I tell you; it was a dream come true.&uot;

The Tuskegee Airmen have a highly regarded record in combat, flying more than 15,000 sorties and destroying over 1,000 German aircraft. They received hundreds of Air Medals and more then 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

The Tuskegee Airmen also held the distinction of being the only U.S. Fighter Group in World War that could claim to have never lost a bomber in their care.

Today, the Tuskegee Airmen are comprised of 45 chapters across the U.S., and like Williams and Horne, they visit schools and other groups to educate the public about their history.