Tuskegee Airmen inspire at Fantasy of Flight

Above Photo: Tuskegee Airmen panelists Daniel Keel (left), George Hardy (center) and Leo Gray (right) speak about their lives, military experiences and racism. Mr. Deric Feacher (behind podium) was the moderator. (Credit: John Stemple)

From February 10-12, 2012, Fantasy of Flight held a symposium titled They Dared to Fly: Tuskegee Airmen. This event featured Daniel Keel, George Hardy, and Leo Gray. All three were members of the famed American World War II 332nd Fighter Group. The men related personal stories of the racial and operational challenges they encountered at home and overseas. Mr. Deric Feacher, assistant to the Winter Haven city manager, served as emcee.

The graduates of U.S. Army Air Corps flying training at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF), Alabama, subsequently amassed an impressive record. Their success led to positive change. In essence, the Tuskegee Airmen helped to set the stage for the eventual integration of the U.S. Armed Forces. Brief biographies of the panelists appear in the paragraphs below.

Daniel Keel was studying aeronautical engineering as a junior at Northeastern University in 1943 when Uncle Sam sent him a draft notice. He graduated from Tuskegee training in September 1945. Daniel was with the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) and North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. His unit had finished training late to see combat. Mr. Keel recalled racism. At the Army Air Force Bombardier School in Midland, Texas, the “base commander told us that Blacks couldn’t eat in the officers’ mess or enter the officer’s club.”

George E. Hardy joined the military in July 1943. He began Aviation Cadet Training at TAAF in December 1943. George graduated with his wings in September 1944. Mr. Hardy received additional combat flying training at Walterboro Army Air Field (WAAF), South Carolina. As a fighter pilot, he went to Italy in February 1945. In Italy he served with the 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. George flew 21 combat missions. After the war he served at TAAAF and at Lockbourne Army Air Field (LAAF), Ohio, before being discharged in November 1946.

Hardy served as a flier during the Korean War and Vietnam conflict. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in November 1971. His decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 11 Oak Leaf Clusters and the Commendation Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster.

As a youngster Leo R. Gray was a Boy Scout. He earned all the qualifications to become a Life Scout. Ultimately, Leo achieved the rank of Junior Assistant Scoutmaster of his Troop.

Mr. Gray graduated from Boston English High School in 1942. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a private. After completing the College Training Detachment Program at the Tuskegee Institute, Leo began aviation cadet training. He graduated from flying school with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in Tuskegee’s Class 44-G (SE). At graduation he had earned the Single Engine Pilot rating.

After completing combat fighter training at WAAF, 2nd Lt. Gray went to Italy and the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. He flew 15 combat missions over Europe in North American P-51 Mustangs. Gray logged a total of 750 hours of flying time. He left active duty in 1946 but remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve until retirement in 1984. During his 41-year military career, Lt. Col. Gray earned the Air Medal with 1 oak leaf cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon with 3 battle stars. In addition, he earned the American Theatre and World War II Victory button.

Although the movie Red Tails is very entertaining, it was good to hear the facts, devoid of artistic license and inaccuracies, from those who actually lived through the events. When asked about the content, George Hardy commented that he noted a fictional Mustang in the film crashes after combat with a Me-262. The “P-51” has the same number as the Mustang he flew in Italy near the end of the war. Mr. Hardy hurried to point out that his “Mustang was fine when he departed for home.”

Mr. Gray indicated that he liked the movie but added that there were exaggerations. One example was the Tuskegee aviators’ repeated strafing attacks and the seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition available to the pilots. Leo stated, “We never knew we were that good! The rule in reality was to make only one or two passes and get out.”

While responding to a query about close calls, Mr. Gray told of two encounters with the enemy. One was when 3 P-51s were escorting a Lockheed P-38 Lightning over Prague.  The P-38 had larger auxiliary tanks on this mission and the pilot radioed that he wanted to fly further into enemy airspace. The Tuskegee escort, their Mustangs having small capacity tanks installed, told the Lightning driver that if he did he was going alone.

Soon after turning for home, Mr. Gray said someone called, “Bogeys! The enemy aircraft began circling above us.” They were Luftwaffe Me-262 turbojet interceptors. Whenever the speedy Messerschmitts began attack runs, the Tuskegee Mustang pilots began to pull up in a scissoring maneuver that would cause the Germans to break away. When the slower P-51s “dropped their tanks, the Me-262 pilots, thinking the Americans were ready to engage, reversed course and flew away toward Germany.”

A second instance was when Mr. Gray was flying over the Alps and German 88mm anti-aircraft shells exploded some 20-25 feet away. He had never seen the black puffs. Leo called over the radio, “Hey, there’s flak!” Flying on and watching the bursts, he eventually realized that he was alone in the sky. Mr. Gray turned and headed back to his formation. Just then he heard a fellow P-51 pilot call out, “Bogey, twelve o’clock high!” Leo excitedly replied, “I’m no bogey! I’m just trying to join up!”

During the question and answer period, a confrontational query from a Black member of the audience, referencing the lighter skin pigment possessed by one the Tuskegee panelists, caused a tense moment. The panelists pointed out that, during the war, possessing even a relatively small percentage of Black ancestry would result in the army classifying personnel as “Black.” Mr. Gray, gazing upon the various races comprising the audience and noting the high level of interest, stated the following: “Everyone here today is ‘Black.’ In World War II, I found out that not all Whites are racists and not all Blacks have your best interest at heart.”

Aviation aficionados may wish to view Fantasy of Flight’s airworthy examples of aircraft Tuskegee Airmen flew during training and in combat. These include a North American AT-6 Texan advanced trainer, Curtiss TP-40 Warhawk, two North American P-51 Mustangs and a North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. The P-51C sports “Red Tail” livery in tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen.

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