Saturday night I shook the hands of three heroes – three members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary group of African Americans pilots who battled fascism in the skies over Europe and racism on the ground in America.
Eugene Richardson said he had no idea at the time what a big deal it was. As a young man, there was no way he could have known he was changing the world. “Oh no,” he said. “I just wanted to fly airplanes.”
He did, joining a group of what has become one of the most celebrated groups of pilots in the world – the Tuskegee Airmen. So did James Harvey III. So did Wilbur Mason.
Saturday all three were lionized yet again, this time at a ceremony at Government House in Christiansted, an event that marked the official installation of the Virgin Islands Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a group which honors the memories of the World War II aviators and their support crews, and advances their cause by supporting aeronautical training for young people.
Leon Johnson, the retired Air Force brigadier general who is president of the national organization, said people remember the pilots, especially the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, which rang up an unparalleled record of success during the war. But the group is actually about much more.
More than 15,000 people were part of the Airmen, Johnson said, but only about 1,000 of them were trained as pilots and fewer than 400 were fighter pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen also included bomber pilots, mechanics, clerks, nurses, cooks, and all the other support personnel necessary to support a unit in the field.
“When the Tuskegee Airmen went overseas they went as a complete group,” said Mason, one of the three airmen visiting for the event.
The Army was convinced that black Americans simply could not perform as fighter pilots, and most of the brass expected the “Tuskegee experiment” to prove just that, Mason said.
“So many people were looking for us to fail,” he continued. That “us against the world” feeling knit them together with a bond tighter than most units, he said. “It was like a fraternity, a brotherhood. If one of the fellows was a little low in an area, the others would get together and help him out until he was passing.”
Harvey told of an Air Force pilot competition held in 1949. This was four years after the war, four years after the Tuskegee Airmen had proved they were as good or better as any unit in the air, a year after President Harry Truman had signed the executive order that the military be desegregated, yet it was still clear that the establishment had no use for black pilots, he said. The rules were bent to give white units a better chance, and yet the Tuskegee Airmen still won the event.
But you couldn’t prove it by the reporting. The release issued after the event listed the winning unit and top pilot as “Unknown.” It wasn’t until 46 years later, in 1995, that the records were dug up and the 332 Fighter Group was proclaimed the winner, he said.
“Anything the Tuskegee Airmen did, they did not want to recognize,” he said.
But the Airmen did succeed, and their success paved the way for Truman to order the military to get rid of Jim Crow laws and integrate units. The last all-black unit in the U.S. Military was integrated in 1954.
Black and white soldiers working together, side by side, in the military demonstrated how ridiculous the country’s racial attitudes were. Richardson, who “only wanted to fly airplanes,” drew a straight line from the Tuskegee Airmen, through Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and on to President Barak Obama taking the oath of office.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were the men who changed the country,” Richardson said. “They were the ones who got the civil rights movement started.”
Two St. Croix natives, Henry Rohlsen and Herbert Heywood, were among the men who were part of the group. Heywood’s daughters, Carmen and Cenita, become involved in learning about their father’s past and the history they helped make, and became the driving force behind the movement to get an official chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. for the island. Saturday they were two of the six people who stood up in front of an audience of more than 100, including three of the original Airmen, and took their oaths as the charter officers of the chapter.
The entire slate is: Carmen Heywood, president; Melton Smith, vice president; Violet Bailey-Jederon, secretary-treasurer; Charles Farrell, parliamentarian; Cenita Heywood, public relations officer; and Monroe Edwards, sergeant at arms.
The event was presided over by Gerard “Luz” James; he reminded the audience that in 1990 as a senator he was the author of the bill which changed the name of St. Croix’s airport to the Henry E. Rohlsen International Airport.
St. Croix Administrator Dodson James spoke on behalf of the governor, and the invocation was presented by the Rev. James Niles.
And I got to shake the hands of all three and say, “Thank you.” Not just for what they did in the skies over Europe, but what they did for America. In both battles, they were on the side of freedom. Anyone who wants to see what a hero looks like, maybe shake his hand, and say “Thanks,” can do so at a public meet and greet from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Sunny Isle Mall Amphitheater.