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NEWS | Feb. 9, 2010

Tuskegee Airmen blazed trail of excellence before civil rights movement

By Robert Goetz 502nd Air Base Wing OL-B Public Affairs

More than a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a group of young African-American men made a statement of their own, overcoming racial prejudice and the racial stereotypes of the day to shine as aviators in World War II.

Some of the surviving members of this elite group known as the Tuskegee Airmen told the story of their triumphs - as the only segregated fighter group in the Army Air Corps and later in life - when they addressed members of Team Randolph and other guests during a panel discussion at the second annual Tuskegee Heritage Breakfast Feb. 8 at the 99th Flying Training Squadron here.

"In order to be a Tuskegee Airman pilot, you had to have at least two years of college or a degree," said Thomas Ellis, a San Antonio native assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron. "It wasn't so with the white outfits. They would take them out of high school and let them be pilots.

"They had the cream of the crop in our outfit because we had to do everything better than the other outfits on account of our race," he continued. "They said we couldn't fly, we couldn't do this, we couldn't do that. We proved them wrong."

President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the creation of the all-black flight-training program, which was based at Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Its Airmen, who belonged to the 332nd Fighter Group's 99th, 100th, 301st and 302d Fighter Squadrons, took part in more than 15,500 sorties and more than 1,500 missions in Europe, North Africa and Sicily.

Mr. Ellis said the Tuskegee Airmen excelled in their primary mission, escorting bombers, losing not one bomber to enemy fighter planes.

"No one will ever beat our record," he said. "You won't escort that many bombers without losing one of them."

Some of the Tuskegee Airmen also proved themselves as fighter pilots. They remembered one of their own, Lee "Buddy" Archer, who died Jan. 27 at the age of 90. Mr. Archer was an aerial ace, credited with five kills in the red-tailed P-51 Mustang that identified the Tuskegee Airmen.

Dr. Granville Coggs, who served as a gunner, bombardier and pilot, recalled meeting Mr. Archer when the Tuskegee Airmen were guests of President Barack Obama at his inauguration last year.

"Reporters kept coming to this fellow," he said.

When Dr. Coggs finally introduced himself to "this fellow," he learned that it was the celebrated ace, who, after a long military career, became a corporate executive with General Foods and started a venture capital firm.

Success following the war was a common theme for these Airmen.

Dr. Coggs enjoyed a long, successful career as a radiologist and inventor of cancer detection and treatment devices and competes as a runner in the Senior Games. Dr. Gene Derricotte became a pharmacist and an Air Force dentist; he also blazed a trail as the first black to play in the backfield for the University of Michigan's football team, scoring a touchdown in the Wolverines' 49-0 thrashing of the University of Southern California in the 1948 Rose Bowl.

Another San Antonio native, Negro American League baseball star John "Mule" Miles, delighted the audience with the story of his at-bat against the great Satchel Paige, which ended after the second strike because, he told his manager, he couldn't see Satchel's blazing pitches.

"My bat never left my shoulders," said Mr. Miles, who met some of the Negro Leagues' greatest players, including Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, "Cool Papa" Bell, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Although the Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves time and time again, they repeatedly faced racial prejudice, both during and after the war.

Mr. Ellis recalled a threatened riot when German prisoners-of-war were accorded better treatment at Newport News, Va., in December 1943, as the Tuskegee Airmen prepared to go overseas.

"They could eat anywhere - in the white officers' club, in the enlisted men's club," he said of the Germans. "They could sit anywhere and in the theaters. And we couldn't. And there we are fighting with the United States."

Warren Eusan, who taught the instrument flying curriculum at Tuskegee, said the Airmen, despite their exemplary wartime record, could not get jobs as airline pilots following the war. He told how acclaimed fighter pilot Roscoe Brown's application for an airline job was tossed in a trashcan with no consideration. But he secured his future nonetheless.

"Roscoe didn't become an airline pilot, but he became president of a college in New York," Mr. Eusan said.

President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1948, and Mr. Ellis said the Tuskegee Airmen were the catalyst.

"That is why the military is integrated," he said. "We are the cause of it."