Thriller of the Tuskegee Prime Weapons’ Lacking Trophy
A crew of Tuskegee Airmen took high honors on the 1949 Air Pressure gunnery meet, solely to have their trophy mysteriously disappear for 47 years.
All people is aware of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen—how they blew via the colour barrier and have become World Conflict II’s solely American black pilots and floor crews, how they flew lots of of profitable bomber escort missions with their red-tail P-51s, how they went dwelling at battle’s finish and located racism within the U.S. nonetheless alive and nicely. Finish of story.
Truly, it isn’t. One of many least-known features of the Tuskegee saga is that their 332nd Fighter Group was reactivated in 1947, and continued to fly till June 1949 with a stable cadre of peacetime African-American pilots, most of whom have been fight veterans, and floor help personnel. And most stunningly, that in Could 1949 three black pilots from the 332nd took first place, as a crew, on the U.S. Air Pressure’s very first postwar fighter weapons meet. It was referred to as america Continental Gunnery Meet, and it could go on to change into the well-known USAF William Inform competitors. The 332nd crew was topped the Air Pressure’s champion piston-engine gunnery, rocketry and fighter-bomber specialists. (There was a separate division for jets—Lockheed F-80s and Republic F-84s in ’49.)
Sadly, the Tuskegee crew’s trophy went lacking, and till 1995 the winner within the propeller-driven division at that prestigious meet was listed in Air Pressure information as “unknown.” Some say it was a typical navy screw-up, no hurt meant. Others level to it as an apparent instance of still-smoldering racism; the Air Pressure couldn’t bear to confess that “a bunch of Negroes” had gained the competitors.
It was stovepipe scorching in Las Vegas in Could 1949, however “the climate was good,” recalled Harry Stewart, a retired engineer and pure fuel pipeline firm government who lives in Bloomfield, Mich. Stewart is certainly one of two surviving members of the four-man Tuskegee crew. “The missions began very early within the morning—about 6 o’clock, as a result of the thermals within the desert received fairly dangerous because the day went on, particularly if you happen to have been doing low-level skip bombing or strafing.”
Stewart, who retired from the Air Pressure Reserves as a lieutenant colonel, was then a primary lieutenant. His teammates have been 1st Lt. James Harvey (additionally alive as we speak) and Captain Alva Temple, plus one alternate in case a substitute pilot was wanted, 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander.“There have been six occasions,” mentioned Stewart. “Aerial gunnery at 10,000 and 20,000 ft, skip bombing, rocketry, dive bombing and panel gunnery—strafing a 10-by-10-foot panel on the bottom. Within the aerial gunnery, we have been taking pictures at a sleeve towed by a Douglas A-20.”
The 332nd’s airplanes have been Republic P-47N Thunderbolts (redesignated F-47s), and James Harvey thinks they put the Tuskegee Airmen at a little bit of an obstacle in opposition to the North American F-51s, F-82 Twin Mustangs and Northrop F-61 Black Widows the opposite models flew.“The P-47 was out of date, interval,” mentioned Harvey, who as we speak lives in Denver and had an in depth USAF profession that amongst different excessive factors made him the primary black jet pilot to fly fight over Korea. “The Air Pressure was eliminating them, going into jets. The Thunderbolts have been going to the Air Nationwide Guard. After they reactivated the 332nd in ’47, they picked up P-47Ns out of storage in Oklahoma Metropolis and introduced them to Lockbourne Air Pressure Base, in Ohio, the place we have been stationed. My job for a very long time was ferrying P-47s.”
Stewart, nonetheless, was keen on the previous Jug. “It was simply pretty much as good for what we have been doing with it because the P-51,” he mentioned. “The P-47N was the ultimate mannequin. They have been designed particularly for the battle within the Pacific, with a souped-up engine, gasoline tanks within the wings and so they even had an autopilot. That they had a spread of 13 hours and have been designed to fly from Okinawa to the Japanese mainland, escorting B-29s. That was most likely going to be the 332nd’s subsequent mission, had the battle not ended.”
One factor the P-47 was notably good at was skip bombing, because it had discovered its métier in Europe as a fighter-bomber. “We had probably the most enjoyable with the skip bombing,” Harvey mentioned. “We had an ideal rating. Three missions, two bombs per airplane. No, you didn’t guess at the place to skip the bomb to hit the goal; we didn’t guess at something—we have been good,” he mentioned, laughing. “We’d are available with our prop tips on a foot off the bottom, and the moment the goal disappeared below the nostril, we’d punch off the bomb. Let it go and pull up.”
Harvey wasn’t kidding concerning the low altitudes. Every crew was allowed to deliver 4 airplanes, in case one of many three crew planes skilled a mechanical failure, and the 332nd used their spare. “Certainly one of our pilots ran onto a stanchion that held up the skip-bombing goal,” mentioned Stewart. “It was an iron pipe, and it ripped a gap within the stomach of the P-47. That airplane needed to be taken out of motion.”
Each Stewart and Harvey credited their floor crews as equal winners of the competitors.“It was a contest between the help crews in addition to the pilots,” Stewart mentioned. “It was as much as them to maintain these airplanes tuned so we might meet every of our missions. If the bottom crews couldn’t sustain, we’d should default. We got here again from our missions about midday, and the bottom crews began to work on the airplanes. They labored late into the night to get these ships prepared for us the following morning.” Stewart defined that the weapons have been “harmonized” after each flight, fastidiously bore-sighted and aligned to offer the precise bullet sample that every pilot needed, in case vibration or recoil had barely displaced the weapons. (The F-47s had eight .50-caliber weapons, and for the reason that F-51s and F-82s had solely six, two of every Jug’s .50-cals have been disarmed to even the chances.)
“Our floor crews have been so good that after they broke our fighter group up in ’49 and scattered us to squadrons everywhere in the world, our group commander received extra requests for his upkeep folks than anyone else,” recalled Harvey. “They have been the most effective within the Air Pressure.”
Oddly, Harvey and Stewart keep in mind the temper of the meet solely in another way, which maybe exhibits that racism will be perceived and imagined, in addition to being irrefutably skilled.
“We had no contact with the white pilots,” Harvey mentioned, his voice making it clear that he’s nonetheless simmering. “They only ignored us. No person talked to us, interval. After the weapons meet, they’d this huge banquet on the Flamingo Resort in Las Vegas. They took our footage with the trophy, and so they advised us goodbye. They have been having a giant to-do for the winners of the meet, however we didn’t get to take part.”
“No, I don’t recall that in any respect,” mentioned Stewart. “The white pilots have been well mannered, cordial, not condescending. We didn’t do an excessive amount of socializing with them, although we did with our brother fighter pilots from the Ninth Air Pressure, the 4th Fighter Group. They have been white, flying F-80s within the jet division. We had educated at a few of the identical fields, so we had an ongoing rapport with each other.” He takes delight in the truth that the 4th Group gained the jet class, making it a clear sweep for the Ninth Air Pressure.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that the 2 class winners got here from the identical air pressure,” Stewart continued. “It was a tactical air pressure, and we have been always coaching. We spent two months twice a yr down at Eglin AFB, in Florida, working towards gunnery and floor help. After we competed in opposition to the remainder of these guys, the extent of our coaching got here via. I don’t assume it was any inherent superiority.
“As I keep in mind, we went to the ultimate banquet. So far as on-base actions went, under no circumstances have been we excluded from something.” However Las Vegas itself was not so accommodating; a gaggle of 332nd enlisted personnel had been kicked out of the Flamingo—no blacks allowed—days earlier.
Stewart’s reminiscences are given added weight by his account of the competitors’s one tragedy: “We had a double fatality on the market, in an F-82, and certainly one of them was certainly one of our crew chiefs, a fellow named Austin. He had requested the F-82 pilot, who was white, if he might take a experience with him within the empty second cockpit. It was the man’s first dive-bombing try, and he failed to drag out in time.” Horrific as the result was, a white officer pilot agreeing to take a black enlisted man for a joyride hardly speaks of racial discrimination.
Stewart additionally identified that although the fighter weapons meet was a crew competitors, the highest-scoring particular person pilot was white. “We have been outgunned within the strafing class by a P-51,” he admitted. “Our factors chief on the time was Captain Alva Temple. He was amassing an amazing rating till panel gunnery got here alongside. Temple was set to be the highest gun till this fellow from the 82nd Fighter Group named [1st Lt. William W.] Crawford got here alongside, and he shot an uncanny rating on strafing. To offer credit score the place it’s due, Crawford received the highest particular person rating, and Temple got here in second.”
By means of the efforts of former Tuskegee Airmen and different fans, the 1949 U.S. Continental Gunnery Meet trophy was lastly unearthed, in 1996, in a storeroom on the Nationwide Museum of the U.S. Air Pressure. It’s at present on everlasting show on the museum. “There’s a narrative there that we’ll by no means know,” mentioned Stewart. “Some folks attribute it to racial bias, however I don’t really feel that method myself. I believe it was only a navy screw-up.”
After the gunnery meet, Harvey went on to fly F-80s out of Misawa AFB, in Japan, through the Korean Conflict. The story of his arrival at Misawa remembers a basic line from the movie Within the Warmth of the Evening, which starred Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective caught in the course of a homicide investigation in a small Mississippi city. “So what do they name you up there in Philadelphia?” the redneck sheriff asks Poitier. “They name me Mister Tibbs,” Poitier snarls. When Harvey arrived at his new unit, the wing commander, who had by no means in his life seen a black pilot, mentioned, “So what ought to we name you?”
“How about Lieutenant Harvey,” he mentioned.
Even James Harvey may not have believed that in his lifetime there can be a person who might say, “You possibly can name me President Obama.” The Tuskegee Airmen performed a considerable half in ensuring that will occur.
13 months earlier than the Las Vegas fighter weapons meet, Lieutenant Harry Stewart had already established his personal small area of interest in Air Pressure historical past. Coming back from Shaw AFB in South Carolina to the 332nd Fighter Group’s base in Ohio, VFR on high of stable clouds, Stewart ran right into a boomer—a thunderstorm that overwhelmed his means to fly an F-47 on devices whereas coping with lightning, express-elevator air currents and rain pounding his cover. Stewart mentioned the hell with it, cranked the cover again and bailed out. He hit the vertical stabilizer onerous, shattering one leg, pulled the D-ring and floated down via the undercast.
“Once I got here out of the clouds, I noticed a few hills and a valley, and I attempted to steer the chute like I remembered being advised you have been purported to do, towards what seemed like a superb touchdown spot,” Stewart mentioned. “I almost collapsed the chute and determined to go away nicely sufficient alone. Landed in some pine bushes and ended up hanging about two ft above the bottom. Bought myself down and crawled below a rock overhang. It was nonetheless raining onerous.”
Stewart had landed in Butcher Hole, Ky. (Cue Loretta Lynn: “Nicely, I used to be born a coal miner’s daughter, in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler…”) His empty airplane hit the bottom about 100 yards from Lynn’s birthplace.
In 1948, in hardscrabble rural Kentucky, for a black man this wasn’t a lot totally different from touchdown behind enemy strains. Actually, the unimaginable rumor finally unfold that “a Negro” had stolen a B-52 and was shot down by F-84 Thunderjets whereas making a bombing run in town. “It wasn’t lengthy earlier than I heard a voice hallo-ing, and a person confirmed up on a horse. His daughter had seen my parachute. When he noticed me, he took a deep breath, and so did I, and we stared at one another awhile. He took me to his farm on one other horse he’d introduced alongside, and his spouse was out within the yard washing garments in a giant cauldron.
“She went into the home, got here out with a clear white sheet and started tearing it into bandages. It was fairly a gesture on her half, since I’m certain they didn’t have any spare sheets. She washed my leg and bandaged it.
“I used to be in ache on the time, and her husband got here out of the home with a glass of what seemed like water. I’d given up ingesting for Lent—I got here down on Palm Sunday—and I put the glass to my nostril and smelled the moonshine, gave it again to him and mentioned no thanks. He gave me a tough look and mentioned, ‘You higher drink that.’ I didn’t know if it was a menace or as a result of he thought I wanted it for the ache, however I wasn’t going to argue with him. I downed it, and I don’t assume any amount of cocaine or morphine might have performed higher for the damage.”
Some years in the past, Stewart was invited again to Butcher Hole—the township is definitely named Van Lear—because the marshal of the Homecoming Day parade. “I met Loretta Lynn’s household, went out to the house the place she was born. They handled me royally.”
For the previous two years, Stephan Wilkinson has been a youth mentor for the Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. He teaches courses in flying, aviation historical past and writing within the chapter’s Purple Tail Youth Flying Program at Stewart Airport, in Newburgh, N.Y. For extra on the chapter, which not solely operates the flying program with a Cessna 172 however additionally awards $10,000 yearly in tuition-assistance grants to college-bound Hudson Valley excessive faculty seniors, go to www.tai-ny.org. James Harvey has an in depth web site coping with the Airmen’s involvement within the gunnery competitors, www.tuskegeetopgun.com.
Initially printed within the March 2012 situation of Aviation Historical past. To subscribe, click on here.