Retired Lt. Col. Herbert Carter, 91, points to miniature airplane models dangling like toy mobiles in the former Intelligence Room at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala. (pop. 11,846).
During World War II, young black pilots-in-training were tested at the airfield on how well they could identify enemy planes. "You were supposed to say, 'Well that's a P-24, that's a P-38,' just from the silhouette, because when you're up there flying that's really all you see," says Carter, who saw his share of enemy planes as a Tuskegee Airman escorting bombers overseas.
"The problem was no commander from England to Burma wanted this all-black fighter squadron," Carter says. "They said that the black man did not have the capacity to operate something as complicated as an aircraft, that he was subservient, he was lackadaisical, and he didn't have the physiological or psychological qualities to become an officer."
His uniform jacket crowded with medals, the soft-spoken Carter today resides in Tuskegee and is one of 295 known living Tuskegee Airmen. He frequently has spoken to school students, civic groups and military troops about his wartime experience of flying 77 combat missions in Europe and North America and overseeing 32 airplanes in the 99th Fighter Squadron in Morocco and Italy. He describes how in April 1943, during its first two weeks of operation, the squadron shot down 18 German aircraft and damaged another eight.
"We lost six men in the endeavor," he says, "but finally destroyed the myth that the black man could not fly and fight."
Fighting on two fronts
The Tuskegee Airmen were America's first black military aviators and were recruited by the U.S. Army Air Corps between 1941 and 1946.
Blacks previously were barred from flying in the military. However, two years after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, a shortage of pilots prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a "Negro pursuit squadron" whose members would train in Tuskegee. The men were trained as single- and twin-engine pilots, navigators and bombardiers, practicing for combat at Moton Field and the Tuskegee Army Air Field five miles away.
The "Tuskegee experiment" involved an estimated 16,000 to 19,000 airmen, including mechanics, parachute riggers and support staff. Nearly 1,000 pilots graduated; 450 of them were deployed for combat duty overseas.
Known as "red tails" for the bright red paint on the tails of their planes, the airmen flew 1,578 missions throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and northern Africa. Eighty-four were killed, and 32 were downed or captured as prisoners of war.
Every member of the "experiment" understood that they were fighting two wars: one against fascism abroad, the other against racism at home. It would be 1948 before President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces, allowing black people to serve their nation alongside whites.
"The Tuskegee Airmen's greatest legacy is not the myth of never losing a bomber to enemy aircraft," says U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Craig Huntly, 49, a historian in Los Angeles. "It is essentially the fact that they fought for the right to fight for America."
Today, their story is told at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, which opened in 2008 at Moton Field. But the most memorable testaments to their heroism are the veterans themselves.
Carter grew up in a family of 10 children in Emory, Miss., where a young black man typically went to work in the lumberyard or for the railroad as a section hand or Pullman porter. Determined their kids would do better, Carter's parents sent him to the all-black Tuskegee Institute, where he studied to become a livestock veterinarian and became a pilot so he could fly between farms. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, however, Carter jumped at the chance to join the Tuskegee Airmen.
He excelled as a pilot and amassed a stellar military record during World War II. Nonetheless, he found race relations unchanged upon returning to Mississippi in 1944 and reporting later to Godman Army Airfield in Kentucky. "There was no fanfare, no ticker-tape parades, no public demonstrations, no recognitions of the group," says Carter, who went on to become a highly decorated Air Force officer.
Still, Carter and his fellow airmen moved forward knowing that they played a significant role during World War II. "We refused to be categorized by others who were already biased in their judgment," he says.
Up in the air
Airplanes always fascinated retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, 88. As a youngster in Detroit, he pored over magazines about fighter planes, built aircraft models and drew pictures of them. Thus, his intention of becoming a chemist took a welcome detour with the opportunity to enlist and earn his pilot wings in Tuskegee.
At Moton Field, Jefferson fulfilled his childhood dream of flying a bi-wing Stearman, a plane used for wartime training. He graduated in 1944 and became a "wing man" in the 332nd Fighter Group, escorting B-17s and B-24s from Italy to Germany.
"We were free to search and destroy on the way back, go down on the ground and shoot up trains and airfields, barrages on the Danube (River). I know I got two or three trains," he says.
That summer, his plane was struck by enemy fire over southern France, and when he parachuted to the ground, "a German was right there with a big gun," he recalls. He spent nine months as a POW in Poland and Germany-an experience he says was tinged with irony. "I was treated as an officer and a gentleman in Stalag Luft III simply because I was an American officer. There were no beatings, no torture," he says, referring to how some black people were treated at the time in the United States.
Jefferson later enjoyed a career as an elementary school teacher in Detroit, and he continues to teach about the role of the Tuskegee Airmen whenever he can.
"We knew we were good," Jefferson says proudly. "We had to be good. We could not fail."
A Dying Link
With most surviving Tuskegee Airmen in their mid-80s to early 90s, America is losing dozens of these military pioneers each year.
At least 25 are known to have died so far in 2010, including retired Lt. Col. William H. Holloman III, of Kent, Wash., who was interviewed for this American Profile story one month before dying in June at age 85.
"I often tell people we were the forerunners of the civil rights movement," said Holloman, who at age 19 flew P-51s in Italy with the 99th Fighter Squadron and later became the Air Force's first black helicopter pilot. "(But) I don't consider myself or my comrades heroes. We were Americans defending our democracy."