A Cut Above: Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen

A Cut Above: Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen

HIGHER GROUND: Pilots of a Tuskegee Airmen unit, circa May 1943, likely in Southern Italy or North Africa. The Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This week’s observance of Memorial Day, along with the recent release of the film Red Tails (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), brought back memories of a highlight from my life and career. Two years ago, I had the honor of interviewing four extraordinary men for a local paper in San Antonio: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan, Mr. John “Mule” Miles, Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte, and Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs. I was noticeably nervous going in, knowing that I’d be interviewing a part of history — a remnant of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen.

The men, all well into their eighth decade, looked distinguished and refined. I was captivated by their profound stories. With every question I asked, the reality of just how special they were began to unfold. As the first African American aviators in the U.S. armed forces, their courage and success during World War II helped open doors to military service that were once off limits to certain minority groups. Their experiences spoke of a confidence born of great achievement against enormous odds. Indeed, after they took flight, the whole world watched, with everyone, for the most part, believing they would fail.

Although at times life as an airman seemed insurmountably difficult, 90-year-old Eusan, who later became a public school teacher, recalled: “It made us stick together, and there was a pride in all of us that said we had to make it.”

LIVING LEGENDS: Surviving Tuskegee Airmen (from left) Warren Eusan, Gene Derricotte, Granville Coggs and John Miles continue to meet as the San Antonio, Texas, chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (Photo: Wanda Thomas Littles)

I was transported by their remembrances to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 2007, when they and more than 300 other Tuskegee Airmen or their surviving family members stood to witness the ultimate words that they had longed to hear — their names called as collective recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor some 65 years after all the victory celebrations, parades, and ticker tape joyfully lavished on other soldiers had faded away. It was an honor way overdue.

Lt. Colonel Coggs, now retired from the army said, “The honor and recognition we are now receiving is unimaginable … I just wish that those who died without seeing it could be here.”

As we moved on, my questions to them referenced the unabashed racism they faced as young airmen near Tuskegee, Alabama, and I could sense an agreement in spirit that said they had survived and had overcome the harsh reality of an America that was unwilling to regard them as intelligent and capable human beings.

However, these men didn’t allow the mistreatment and disrespect to outweigh the greater mission, for which the fate of the whole of Black America hinged. Although all of them at times thought about it, and probably came close to laying out more than a few white antagonists who taunted them with racist epithets, they did not.

FLY BALL: John 'Mule' Miles played baseball in the Negro League following WW2.

Eighty-eight year old Miles said, “The key to not retaliating was my faith in God; because if it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?” Miles would go on to play ball for The American Negro Baseball League in Chicago after the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen fine-tuned the art of restraint through another type of courage called self-control. And through this restraint, through remaining strong under unthinkable pressure, they proved the whole world wrong about their capabilities.

The most outstanding part of being a Tuskegee Airman was the position they took that said, “No matter how hard they make it, we can take it. There is no room for failure. We must succeed.”

And succeed they did.

Being totally on one accord at every level, from ground to air, this unity of purpose was truly their greatest contribution in destroying the myth that African American men did not have what it took to hold positions of responsibility.

The Tuskegee Airmen, who actually saw battle as fighter pilots, flew 15,553 combat sorties and completed 1,578 missions, providing fighter escorts to strategic targets in Europe. These were men who served with distinction over North Africa, Italy, and Germany. White bomber crews ultimately called them “Red Tailed Angels” because of the red paint on their tail assemblies; but most importantly because they protected the white pilots on their missions. Under the leadership of then-Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who trained the first black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in a unit called the 99th Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world what a people who had been written off as intellectually and mentally deficient were capable of.

After nearly 30 years in the shadow of obscurity and lies, the truth was finally told. With the founding of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan, 50 chapters sprung up all over the U.S. and the record was set straight. Now the organization’s collective aim is to help further the education of young men and women of all races in math, science, and aviation through scholarships and a variety of programs to honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.

OFFICER & GENTLEMAN: Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte.

Lt. Colonel Derricotte, the youngest of the group at age 84, who served in both the Army and Air Force before becoming a dentist, explained, “Essentially no one knew there was such a thing as the Tuskegee Airmen. Now when I speak at schools, and in the community, people tell me how sorry they are for the way we were treated and tell me how proud they are of me — of us.”

The Tuskegee project, according to the men, began when a law passed by Congress allowing African Americans to train in civilian life as pilots was passed. After this bill took effect, an experimental Negro branch of pilots in the Army Air Corps was formed. To date there are roughly 278 Tuskegee Airmen living, with about 90 having been pilots; however, no one knows for certain how many of the estimated 19,000 “Tuskegee Experience” participants are still alive today. What we do know is that they all played an important role in the war. While men like Lee Archer, one of just three Tuskegee pilots with four “kills,” and Roscoe C. Brown, who flew over 79 missions in his career, were making remarkable history in the thick of battle, the men and women back home were building a legacy by following the precedent established to maintain superior support of the men abroad, outstanding deportment, and high achievements in flight should they have to deploy.

PROUD SOLDIER: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan.

The NAACP, the black press, and even then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who flew with a black pilot at Tuskegee, worked hard to get the Tuskegee project off the ground and to support its development. These men and women were the cream of the crop from black colleges and universities across the land. They were men and women who’d studied to be doctors, lawyers, educators, even aviators, who jumped at the opportunity to serve our nation. They were salutatorians, valedictorians, and men and women who were in the upper tenth of their class. They were men and women who were simply the best.

Miles said, “We worked hard all day and went to school at night.”

Even now, the bond forged between them is strong. The men joked, bantered, and reflected on their past lives and Buck Sergeant Eusan asked, “Did you know Derricotte was a student of mine that I trained to master the instrumentation on our planes?” When asked by Derricotte what kind of grade he got, Eusan said, “You’re here right now, aren’t you? You must have gotten an A.”

SKY'S THE LIMIT: Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs.

They laughed — a beautiful thing to hear, which speaks of the resilience of men who turned disrespect, bigotry, and injustice into an occasion for something positive.

Lt. Colonel Coggs reflected, “The only way you could describe the Tuskegee Airmen is that we were a cut above.” And they were, because President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the military after seeing just how far above the racist labels and stereotypes they were.

It’s interesting to note that all but two of the San Antonio chapter members thought that George Lucas’s Red Tails was the best, most accurate film to date on the Tuskegee Airmen; and they’ve seen them all. The two dissenting Airmen felt the film underplayed the intense racial struggles that they faced in favor of a more glamorized “Hollywood” tale. Nonetheless, earlier this year the seven San Antonio Airmen celebrated the film made in their honor by signing autographs and sharing memories with the local press at San Antonio’s Rialto Theater. Inside the theater, after being introduced as members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, they received a standing ovation from moviegoers and staff.

Vintage photos courtesy of the San Antonio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

This Week’s Pendulum

This Week’s Pendulum


1 U.S. POLITICS IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HOLDING AMERICA HOSTAGE?

So many headlines and news stories are focused on whether or not it is Rep. Weiner in the tweeted picture, the odds that Palin’s bus tour could “accidentally” end up in New Hampshire on the same day as Romney’s big announcement (the odds are 1,700 to 1 by the way) and former Sen. John Edward’s indictment, that our debt ceiling issue is being overlooked! The Treasury Department is saying the U.S. may begin defaulting as early as August 2. And while many people are confident that the U.S. will not miss payments, this fiasco certainly doesn’t reassure creditors of our financial stability. In fact, a lack of faith in the U.S. economy can result in another financial crisis. Even more concerning is why the limit hasn’t been raised yet: Republicans want the legislation to include measures to reduce spending (i.e. cut Medicare). On Friday, June 3, 2011, House Speaker John Boehner stated, “House Republicans met with the president, urged him to change course,and to work with us on our plan for new jobs and economic growth in our country.We hope he’ll take us up on our invitation.” If their “invitation” isn’t accepted, the Republican Party might just resort to putting a horse’s head in President Obama’s bed.

2 WORLD MUBARAK MAY BE EXECUTED FOR PROTESTER DEATHS

Last week, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office announces that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will go to trial in criminal court for injustices against the Egyptian people and deaths of protesters. On January 25, he allegedly orderd police to fire at protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mubarak could be executed if found guilty.

3 ART TIM BURTON’S EXHIBIT IS A TWISTED FANTASY RIDE

Tim Burton, the eccentric filmmaker behind Alice and Wonderland, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissor Hands, opened his exhibit last week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibit takes a tour through Burton’s career comprised of 700 hundred mobiles, drawings, figurines and other pieces of art.  The exhibit even includes sketches from his days as an artist at Disney. For Burton fans (like myself), visiting this exhibit is a must! It will be at the LACMA through October 31.

4 MUSIC RIHANNA GETS REVENGE FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN NEW VIDEO ‘MAN DOWN’

Rihanna’s new video may cause controversy due to her very public history of domestic violence, but perhaps for her, it’s just therapy. In the video, Rihanna seems like an innocent girl going through her island neighborhood, talking with locals, and drinking coconut milk. But things go awry when she visits a steamy nightclub and the man that she dances with all night follows her into a dark alley and forces himself on her. Though the video has stirred plenty of controversy, thanks primarily to Rihanna’s sad history with men, it offers a valuable lesson. When we play with fire, our innocence can be quickly robbed.

 

5 EDUCATION PRAYER OUTLAWED AT SAN ANTONIO GRADUATION

Last week a federal judged that a high school graduation at edina Valley High School, in San Antonio, Texas, could not pray during the ceremony and could not use the words “invocation” or “benediction.” Americans United for Church and State, represented by Ayesha Kahn, counted this as a victory and Kahn stated that, “the district (had) been flouting the law for decades.”  Students were allowed talk about their faith in a speech but not allowed to say “amen,” God bless you,” or have the audience bow their heads.  I don’t know where the Christians were in this debate, but one hopes they will step up and express their concern and take a stand for the religious freedom of future matriculants.

6 MONEY STATE REVENUE REACHES SURPLUS, AND STILL NO PEACE

States across the country have unexpected surpluses from increased tax revenue, but still cannot settle on budgets. Pennsylvania alone expects to close the year with $500 million in surplus, while California received an unexpected $2.5 billion in tax revenue. States that have this additional revenue have found a new problem when settling the budget. Some have proposed that they should use the money toward areas that have been neglected due to budget cuts like education and social services. Others propose that states should save the revenue as cushion for an unpredictable economy. What do you think?

7 TECHNOLOGY MAKE A SECOND INCOME WITH IPHONE CAR RENTAL APP

GETAROUND may help you get some of your gas money back in this harsh economy. It’s a social car sharing service where you use the iPhone app to rent out your car to others in your neighborhood for a fee. The service provides hourly and daily rentals that a renter can search by car type. Depending on the condition and make of your car, you’ll be able to rent out your car for a more pricey fee. Expect to rent at anywhere from $5/hour for a ’98 Honda Civic to $50/hour for a Tesla Roadster. It’s a brilliant concept, so long as some heavy legal work is done to protect the renter. As a city dweller, I’d definitely give it a try.

8 TV DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL HIGHLIGHTS BLACK DIRECTORS

On Tuesday, June 28 at 8p(ET/PT), BURN:The Evolution of an American City will premiere on the Documentary Channel. The award-winning film is directed by Harold Jackson III and tells the story of the worst recorded race riot in American History: The Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921. The conflict lasted for 16 hours with aerial attacks, mobs, and martial law. It left 10,000 residents homeless, 35 city blocks destroyed, and many dead. The Documentary Channel will feature the film as a part of its Black Documentary Cinema, which spotlights Black filmmakers the last Tuesday of each month.

   

 
9 MOVIES TARAJI P. HENSON PLAYS TOUGH-LOVE  GOLF COACH IN ‘FROM THE ROUGH’

From the looks of this preview, it will provide much of what you’d expect from the headline. A mixed group of boys from different backgrounds come together to find purpose in their lives through an unlikely golf coach. I doubt there will be any surprises from the story line, however, the film may capture a few surprising performances. I’d still give this film a view due to its potential to inspire and perhaps even steal our hearts like The Great Debaters.

 

10 CELEB MEET THE BLACK, 15-YEAR-OLD AMY WINEHOUSE

I’m not quite sure what image 15-year-old Dionne Bromfield is going for just yet, but with a voice like Billie Holliday and Amy Winehouse (the sober version), this girl is about to be a game-changer. Step back blue-eyed soul, here comes a sista from the UK that has a long career ahead of her. She released her debut album, Introducing Dionne Bromfield, in 2009 through Amy Winehouse’s record label. That album featured all cover songs. This year, Dionne is making her debut with original material. Her single, “Yeah Right,” released in January and was a hit in the UK.  It’s only a matter of time before she spreads like wildfire in the US. Check out her new web series, “Down with Dionne,” and her video for “Yeah Right” below!