Marking the beginning of Virgin Islands History Month which has been observed every March since 2006, this story remembers two men from the territory who served their country.
Virgin Islanders Herbert H. Heywood and Henry E. Rohlsen risked their lives serving their country as World War II fighter pilots, members of the unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen. But because of the color of their skin, their unit didn’t receive the respect or acclaim they earned.
When World War II broke out, there were doubts in the American military about the combat ability of Black men. A program was launched in 1939 to teach Blacks to be fighter pilots. Rohlsen and Heywood graduated in the same flight class in March 1944 as second lieutenants. They played their roles over the course of the war, and the unit, known as the Tuskegee Airmen because they trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, ran up a stellar combat record, giving President Harry Truman the evidence he needed to integrate the U.S. military in 1948.
Rohlsen was born in 1916 on St. John. After the war and his service with the Tuskegee Airmen, he made his way back to St. Croix to continue flying and owned an Ecuadorian airline that he sold to Pan Am, according to his wife, Joyce Rohlsen. He was a respected public figure and testified before the U.S. Congress in favor of establishing the Virgin Islands National Guard. He testified again in favor of allowing Virgin Islanders to vote for the U.S. president. The St. Croix airport is named for Rohlsen.
But he didn’t talk about his war experience, Mrs. Rohlsen told the Source. Several uncles also served with him as a Red Tail Angel, as the Tuskegee Airmen were known, but she didn’t hear them discussing their experiences, “because they were hurtful.”
“It’s very sad their experiences weren’t recognized, and we still have that systemic racism and prejudice going on,” she said.
Heywood was born in Christiansted in 1923 and graduated valedictorian from Christiansted Senior High School. He received a scholarship for undergraduate studies at Columbia University Law School in New York and entered military service at the age of 19.
After the war, he was a teacher and a two-time councilman. His daughter, Cenita Heywood, said she heard him talk about his experiences, but “none of it was positive,” she said.
“He often spoke about the discrimination and mistreatment that he and fellow Blacks faced on a regular basis, not just in the military, but within the local town and community,” she said.
Years later, she and her twin sister joined the U.S. Air Force, but their father tried to discourage them. Her sister, Carmen, served almost a decade and Cenita was in the military for 25 years.
The Tuskegee Airmen, organized as the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, flew more than 15,000 individual sorties and 1,578 combat missions, destroying 260 enemy aircraft, according to Air Force records. Almost 1,000 men strong, the unit earned a total of 150 Flying Crosses and Legions of Merit and more than 700 Air Medals and clusters.
When the group was formed, “as an experiment,” in 1939, it was generally believed that Black service members were not as able or willing to perform as white pilots, but the 995 men trained at the Tuskegee Institute proved to be legends.
“They didn’t have to prove themselves 100 percent. They had to prove themselves 1,000 percent,” Joyce Rohlsen said in 2009, referring to the doubts the white military command had about the Black pilots.
By 1944, the pilots of the 332 Fighter Group were protecting bombers at almost twice the rate of success as white fighter pilots. It was said that the white fighter pilots frequently wandered off to shoot down enemy aircraft, leaving the bombers exposed. But the Tuskegee Airmen stayed with their charges, flying alongside the bombers even into the line of fire. The Tuskegee Airmen painted the tails of their aircraft red and became known as the Red Tail Angels.
“The Tuskegee Airmen didn’t even leave formation to avoid flack like the other fighters,” said Staff Sgt. Ken Anhalt, a gunner on a B-24 bomber, who flew side by side with the Airmen. In 2011, he recounted flying over the Alps. On the way home, after taking out their target they lost two of four engines. He said they didn’t expect to make it back to the base until they saw two Red Tail Angels who escorted them home while deflecting enemy fire. When they landed, Anhalt went over to thank the fighter pilots. But his own pilot, a southerner, declined to do so.
Despite their accomplishments and status as officers in the U.S. Air Force, the Black airmen and women suffered severe racism typical of the times – shoved to the back of the bus, forced to use separate bathrooms and water fountains, showered with shouted epithets on the streets. Some were arrested for using the Officers’ Club.
It wasn’t until 2007, more than 60 years after the war ended, that the corps of Black pilots were recognized finally by Congress. Rep. Charles Rangel, (D-NY), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time, and Sen. Carl Levin, (D-Mich), led the effort in Congress to recognize the Tuskegee Airmen, resulting in congressional Medals of Honor awarded by President George W. Bush.
The belated recognition came too late for the two Virgin Islanders. Rohlsen died in 1981 and Heywood died in 1982. Neither received the tribute for their heroism during their lifetimes or heard the words of praise from President Bush.
“I thank you for the honor you have brought to our country, and the medal you are about to receive means that our country honors you,” he said in the ceremony 2007 in the Capitol Rotunda honoring the flyers.
The Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars, Bush said at the time, one in the European theater and another in the hearts and minds of the nation’s citizens.
“[My father] flew with a group of brave young men who endured difficult times in defense of our country,” Bush said, referring to his father, President H.W. Bush, who flew combat missions in the Pacific during the war. “Yet, for all they sacrificed and all they lost, in a way they were very fortunate. They never had the burden of having their every mission, their every success, their every failure viewed through the color of their skin … nobody refused their salutes,” Bush said.
Bush then stood at attention before the surviving airmen at the ceremony and saluted them.