Lakeland gets an Airmen lesson

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 14, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

Before any of the Tuskegee Airmen ever sat behind the controls of a plane, ever picked up a wrench to fix up an airplane motor, ever shot down a single enemy fighter jet, they’d already won a battle. But in less than five years after their inception, they’d win hundreds more.

&uot;The Tuskegee Airmen had to fight for the right to fight for their country,&uot; retired master sergeant Grant Williams, a former Airman, told an auditorium full of Lakeland students Tuesday morning. &uot;People of color had fought in the military since the revolutionary days, but were never given a position of authority. They fought in Germany and Japan, and they also fought bigotry in America.&uot;


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Back in July of 1941, a program began at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to train blacks as military pilots. The original class included 996 airmen, made up of pilots, bombardiers, and navigators.

Back when he was growing up in the 1930s, when segregation was the law of the land, Francis Horne became interested in flying after watching the film, &uot;The Dawn Patrol.&uot;

&uot;Later on, when World War II broke out, we didn’t want to fight the Red Baron,&uot; Horne said. &uot;We wanted to fight (Nazi president Hermann) Goering.&uot;

He saw an ad in the newspaper offering the chance to take the test to become an army cadet, and applied.

When he got to the Air Force base, Horne said, &uot;I felt like a kid waiting for Santa Claus. But then I got a rude awakening.&uot;

He was one of only two black students, and was forced to sit in the hallway. A few minutes later, the other student tore up his paper and left. Horne stayed, and completed his test.

&uot;The instructor told me that I’d failed,&uot; he said. &uot;Then he told me about a place in Alabama that would train me. When I got to Tuskegee, I felt like I was at the Promised Land!&uot;

He learned to be a mechanic, and spent the war fixing up planes at the Alabama base. During that time, 450 Airmen served in combat overseas. They destroyed 251 enemy aircraft. They flew 15,533 missions between May 1943 and June 1945. They won more than 850 medals, including 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals and clusters, and three distinguished unit citations.

None of the bombers they escorted was lost to enemy fighters.

But Horne’s service wasn’t quite finished. When the Korean War broke out, he and the rest of the reservists were called back to action.

&uot;I tried to break my leg and pull my teeth out so I wouldn’t have to go,&uot; he said, &uot;but all the units needed was one person of color to meet the requirements.&uot;

He went to Germany and served for over four years. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s, he was made an operations officer, and eventually got to colonel. Then in 2001, word went around Langley Air Force Base in Hampton that he still wanted to fly.

&uot;I was tied together with wire and chewing gum,&uot; he said. &uot;I got in an F-15 fighter, and we went straight up. All my guts came out, and I thought I was going to die. Things cleared up when we got to 20,000 feet. I saw a stick in front of me and grabbed it. We went over Manassas and Richmond, and for 45 minutes, I had a chance to fly.

&uot;It’s the old saying that we can better the future by using the lessons of the past,&uot; he said. &uot;Remembering the Tuskegee Airmen isn’t just for blacks; it enhances the good things for all Americans.&uot;