Airmen’s story inspires

Published 10:50 pm Tuesday, May 27, 2014

At King’s Fork Middle School on Tuesday, John Yeates Middle School sixth-graders Michael Cain, Nevaeh Herndon and Vienne Aberle read about the Tuskegee Airmen’s six principles, spelled out on the side of the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron’s traveling exhibition trailer.

At King’s Fork Middle School on Tuesday, John Yeates Middle School sixth-graders Michael Cain, Nevaeh Herndon and Vienne Aberle read about the Tuskegee Airmen’s six principles, spelled out on the side of the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron’s traveling exhibition trailer.

A traveling Tuskegee Airmen exhibit that visited the city on Tuesday awed sixth-graders from Suffolk’s public schools with the story of the black combat pilots.

The Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron, in town for the Festival of Flight this weekend, features a documentary film screened inside a mobile theater.

“It brings the field trip to the students,” said Janice McCarter, a history specialist with the school district.

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She was standing outside the exhibit trailer in the King’s Fork Middle School parking lot, waiting for a class to emerge with a new perspective on what it means to face and overcome challenges.

“It’s bringing African-American history to the students that they would never (otherwise) know about,” she said. “We have to take every opportunity to bring them something that’s going to create excitement.”

All sixth-graders will experience the exhibit through Tuesday and Wednesday, McCarter said.

They were also encouraged to attend the festival, held at Suffolk Executive Airport this weekend, to see a restored P-51C Mustang — the plane the airmen flew — featuring the paint scheme of the squadron.

Husband and wife Terry and Jeanette Hollis present the exhibition, each taking turns behind the wheel of the Peterbilt truck that hauls it as they crisscross the country.

“Our goal and mission is to educate and inspire young adults,” Terry Hollis said.

“A lot of kids don’t know anything about the Tuskegee Airmen — who they were, what they did. We are trying to teach them that these guys went through tremendous amount of adversity and they overcame all the obstacles.”

Before the Army Air Corps established the training program for black pilots in 1941, in Tuskegee, Ala. — responding to pressure from many African-Americans as well as the press — blacks wanting to serve their country were relegated to service tasks and support roles, historians say.

Tuskegee was an “experiment” to see if black pilots could be trained to fly combat aircraft, according to history books.

There were 946 pilots and 14,000 ground personnel, Terry Hollis said, all of them black. “They had to have their own mechanics and they had to have their own doctors,” he explained.

The 332nd — as it was known before “the Red Tail Squadron” caught on — had one of the lowest loss records of all bomber escort fighter groups, according to Tuskegee University.

After playing such a vital role in the war, returning home to racism and bigotry, the airmen were forced once more to the back of the bus, five of the pilots explain during the film.

“It was easier to deal with the Germans than it was to deal with back home,” one of them says.

The film also examines the efforts Don Hinze and others to resurrect the airmen’s story. Hinze restored the P51-C, before dying after it crashed because of engine failure. (It was rebuilt again.)

The film also examines the squadron’s six principles: aim high, believe in yourself, use your brain, never quit, be ready to go and expect to win. Students received replica dog tags stamped with them.

“It should be done around the country,” John Yeates Middle School student Osemudiamen Edionwele said of the exhibit.

“It teaches people about the Tuskegee Airmen and their contribution to our society.”