Airmen, 442nd share a bond
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Eloise Aguiar
Every winter, a handful of the military's first black pilots fly to O'ahu's beaches for a few weeks.
They come to spend time with each other and their families, and also to talk story with anyone who wants to hear about life in the military in the 1940s, about how they made history despite the discrimination they faced, and about the skill and courage needed to fly planes in times of war.
"When the Army set up this program, they set it up to fail," said retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, 84, a Tuskegee pilot. "They were demanding we be college graduates in order to fail and prove that segregation and discrimination were valid."
It wasn't, of course, and in the years they've visited O'ahu, many of the visiting Tuskegee Airmen have met with some kindred souls of sorts — members of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The combat team, with a large contingent of Japanese-Americans who had spent time in concentration camps on the Mainland, was the most highly decorated military unit of its size and length of service in history.
One member of the 100th Battalion said he believes he and his comrades share a bond with the Tuskegee Airmen.
"It's like the 442 where they had to prove themselves," said Henry Torres, who spent 26 years in the 100th Battalion and rose to the rank of first sergeant. "They had to fight two fronts: the real enemy and the enemy within."
Torres said he believes the two groups fought harder because of this and they managed to pass that legacy to the present members of the 100th Battalion.
The Tuskegee Airmen were segregated and mistrusted, Torres said, just like the 442nd. In the beginning of the war, bomber pilots didn't want the black fighter pilots to escort them. But as the airmen earned a flawless escort record, bomber pilots started to seek them out, he said.
The history of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of overcoming obstacles.
Of the first class of 13, five graduated in March 1942. By 1947, 994 black pilots had graduated from Tuskegee, a factor in the integration of the armed forces.
Some 450 Tuskegee Airmen served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron or the 332nd Fighter Group.
Jefferson, who has been vacationing in Hawai'i for 10 years, said he enjoyed the training and did it while enduring all of the indignities of the times.
He did it, he said, not only for himself, but for the thousands of blacks who went before him and thousands more after him who have contributed to fighting racism.
"We did it to prove that we could, to prove our heritage," he said. "We owed it to the 140,000 blacks who fought in the Civil War. We did it to honor the 369th Army National Guard out of New York, who fought against Germany wearing French uniforms."
Jefferson flew 18 missions before he was shot down and captured by the Germans in August 1944. He spent nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp and wrote about it in his book "Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free."
Jefferson and five other Tuskegee Airmen were vacationing on O'ahu last month, talking to groups curious about their past and their perspective on life today.
Bill Ellis said he was drafted out of law school and ended up at Tuskegee instead of the infantry because he knew people in Washington, D.C. Most of the men were trained to be fighter pilots, he said, but they were not given combat instructions.
But they were good.
Tuskegee pilots flew more than 15,000 missions and never lost a bomber they escorted, according to the Tuskegee Airmen Web site. They shot down 111 German planes and destroyed another 150 on the ground. They earned 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts and one Silver Star.
Ellis stayed in the military for eight years, becoming a legal officer before ending his career to enter the world of financing. Today, he spends his time talking to young people. His message to them is simple.
"You can do anything in this country you want to do if you're qualified, and you get qualified by staying in school," he said.
Leo R. Gray, 81, entered the Tuskegee program as a high school graduate. He looks at his fellow airmen as pioneers as aviators and in civil rights.
"In terms of an organized entity, the airmen were the first group to substantially stand up against racism," Gray said. "People don't know that. All they think about is a bus boycott in Montgomery, but things happened long before that."
Gray said one incident that comes to mind happened while part of the group was in Europe. Those left behind, Gray said, were subject to unfair treatment and hostility. The black officers were treated as trainees and denied access to the officers' clubs, according to the Tuskegee Web site. They eventually rebelled, forcing their way into the club, and 103 Tuskegee Airmen were arrested. Courts martial proceedings were dropped against 102 officers; one was convicted.
Fifty years later, all of their records were wiped clean.
Retired Lt. Col. Bill Holloman said he waits to come to O'ahu until the last week of February because he wants to give the rest of his time during Black History Month to school groups and other organizations on the Mainland. He spends most of his time here with military groups, he said. Last year, he spoke on 14 military ships and on Maui. He was heading for another talk recently before The Advertiser caught up with him.
Holloman said despite the advances made in civil rights, there's still more to be accomplished, so his talks always include a pep talk about taking advantage of education and doing your best.
"You have to prove yourself," he said. "You produce, you'll be recognized, but you gotta produce. There's no free ride for anyone."
Reach Eloise Aguiar at firstname.lastname@example.org.