Tuskegee Airmen speak at Fantasy of Flight

Panelists and Moderator (L-R): Keel, Hardy, Gray, McGee and Irving.Photo: John Stemple

Panelists and Moderator (L-R): Keel, Hardy, Gray, McGee and Irving.
Photo: John Stemple

February 9, 2013 — For several years Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Fla., has held a symposium (They Dared to Fly) that features Tuskegee Airmen. These men excelled despite encountering institutional racism everywhere in American society. Additionally, they faced de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination within most Southern cities and towns, as well as forms and degrees of one or both elsewhere around the United States. The Tuskegee Airmen appearing this year were Colonel Charles E. McGee, lieutenant colonels George E. Hardy and Leo R. Gray and former Flight Officer Daniel Keel. The event, held February 7 through February 9, 2013, is now history, but the stories the honored men related will live on long after their souls continue to soar in the life hereafter.

Tuskegee Airmen banner in fantasy of Flight hangar.Photo: John Stemple

Tuskegee Airmen banner in fantasy of Flight hangar.
Photo: John Stemple

Pilot and educator Barrington Irving was the moderator. Raised in Miami’s inner city, and surrounded by crime, poverty, and failing schools, Barrington beat the odds to become the youngest person and only African American ever to fly solo around the world. He built a plane himself, made the historic flight, and graduated magna cum laude from an aeronautical sciences program. He additionally founded an educational nonprofit called Experience Aviation. The mission of the organization is to increase the numbers of youth in aviation, and to promote science and math career paths.

Within a Fantasy of Flight press release, Captain Irving says the following: “The impact of the Tuskegee Airmen on my career was profound. The Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy is one that we should we should never forget. Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to work with Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray at a local Airmen’s chapter in Miami. These men were a great inspiration to me. They fought two wars, one for their country and another for equality and respect when they got back home. They are my heroes.”

Charles McGeePhoto: USAF

Charles McGee
Photo: USAF

Charles E. McGee, a resident of Maryland, was born on December 7, 1919, and is therefore 93 years old. Mr. McGee was studying engineering at the University of Illinois when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He earned his wings in June 1943. McGee flew 137 combat missions before returning to the United States in December 1944 having attained the rank of captain. Charles later served as a U.S. Air Force (USAF) pilot in both the Korean and the Vietnam wars. In total, he completed more than 270 more missions. During a 30-year active service career, he achieved the highest three-war fighter mission total (409 fighter combat missions) of any USAF aviator. McGee retired in January 1973 at the rank of colonel. He ended his military career with 6,308 flying hours. Mr. McGee received a number of awards for service. They include the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, a Bronze Star and numerous other awards. In 2011 Charles was a National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee. He also served as a consultant to the 2012 George Lucas film Red Tails.

During the panel sessions Mr. McGee pointed out that the “first Tuskegee Airmen were really the mechanics who trained at Chanute Field in Illinois.” He stressed that the “bomber pilots (training in Indiana) really fought the battle against racism.” Col. McGee continued, “The Tuskegee Airmen were the first ‘Civil Rights’ group to undertake mass protest actions.”

McGee caught the flying bug after his first flight in a Boeing Stearman biplane trainer. That significant event took place in December 1942. Charles noted, “Blacks were called Negroes back then.” He commented on the atmosphere at the time, “The country came together to fight a war. I did not carry a chip on my shoulder. Fighting racists accomplished nothing. We were patriotic.”

Charles began flying escort missions in Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. He said, “The P-47 was limited in high-altitude performance,” and therefore the “Merlin-engine P-51 Mustang was best for the job. The P-51 with the Rolls Royce Merlin was ‘the’ fighting machine. The razorback version had limited rearward visibility. Those flying the models with the bubble canopy were termed ‘swivel necks’ due to the ability to see all around.” When asked to explain the flying qualities of the P-47 to the P-51, he stated the following: “They were analogous to a Cadillac and a Corvette.” During the Korean conflict McGee flew the F-51D.

Mr. McGee pointedly explained that the 2012 film Red Tails “took liberties with some facts.” For instance “No squadron commander was a drinker.” As an aside he added, “In July 1944 the 332nd Fighter Group came together when the Black squadrons converted to the P-51. The ‘Red Tail’ painting was adopted from the 99th Squadron at Ramatelli, Italy.”

A 332nd F-47N Thunderbolt at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, Circa 1947-1948.Photo: USAF

A 332nd F-47N Thunderbolt at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, Circa 1947-1948.
Photo: USAF

Col. McGee reported that racism continued in the military even after the end of World War II. One example was the USAF’s 1949 Top Gun competition. The Black 332nd Fighter Group team from Lockbourne Air Force Base, Ohio, won. However, the official records indicated no winner for that year.

Charles ended his public statements with a heartfelt wish. He hopes one day we will “all just be Americans. The country is still wrestling with racial and immigration issues.”

Leo GrayPhoto: Fantasy of Flight

Leo Gray
Photo: Fantasy of Flight

Leo R. Gray of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., became a Tuskegee airman after graduating from the Tuskegee Army Air Field Flying School as a second lieutenant. He then went to Italy as a fighter pilot with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. Leo flew 15 combat missions over Europe before withdrawing from active duty in 1946. During his 41 years of military service, Lt. Col. Gray was a recipient of many honors. They include the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation and the Mediterranean Theater of Operation Ribbon with three Battle Stars.

Mr. Gray desired to be a pilot because he “wanted to be somebody.” “Besides,” he said, “pilots got all the girls!” He pointed out that racism followed the men overseas. In Italy, the locals got the impression from fellow Army personnel that, “Negroes were barbarians and would eat them.”

George HardyPhoto: John Stemple

George Hardy
Photo: John Stemple

George E. Hardy of Sarasota, Fla., entered military service in July 1943. He graduated as a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen in September 1944. Mr. Hardy shipped overseas in February 1945 and flew 21 combat missions over Germany. He continued his military career and flew combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. George retired from the USAF in November 1971 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. 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 youth George Hardy built model airplanes. Captivated by newsreels reporting the events of the battles of Britain and Midway, George’s primary objective was to earn military wings. Hardy flew Curtiss P-40s and Republic P-47s after graduating from pilot training. In fact, George told the attendees he “flew P-47s before ever driving an automobile! The first car I drove was a LaSalle with stick shift.”

Lt. Col. Hardy stated, “There were 32 Tuskegee prisoners of war. One, holding the rank of lieutenant, was treated better by his German captors than by Caucasian American colleagues. Furthermore, German captives held within the U.S. were often treated better and enjoyed more freedom than Blacks.” Mr. Hardy stated a personal impression: “As far as the Army Air Force was concerned, segregation came first and winning the war second.”

George addressed the enduring myth that the 332nd Fighter Group never lost a bomber while flying escort. He and Col. Gray served on a committee that determined some “26 bombers had in fact been shot down by enemy fighters while under 332nd escort.” Hardy was quick to mention that, in comparison, the fighter group based in the Mediterranean that came closest to matching this record “lost more than 50 bombers.” He explained that it was impossible to be everywhere during escort missions. “The bomber streams,” he stated, “were 100 miles long and the 332nd usually had only 34 fighters to provide escort.”

P-51C in Red Tail livery at Fantasy of Flight.Photo: John Stemple

P-51C in Red Tail livery at Fantasy of Flight.
Photo: John Stemple

Fantasy of Flight's P-51DPhoto: John Stemple

Fantasy of Flight’s P-51D
Photo: John Stemple

Two P-51s, a “C” or “razorback” and a later “D” model, were on display in the hangar behind the audience. Lt. Col. Hardy explained that “Mustangs were a result of a collaboration between Great Britain and the United States. In England British-designed Rolls Royce Merlin powerplants were installed in North American Mustang Mk. I airframes. The result was the best fighter in our arsenal.” Readers may access the author’s 2010 interview with Lt. Col. Hardy by clicking on this link.

Daniel KeelPhoto: Fantasy of Flight

Daniel Keel
Photo: Fantasy of Flight

Daniel Keel of Orlando, Fla., was a junior studying aeronautical engineering at Northeastern University in 1943. After being drafted, he earned his wings as a pilot and navigator in the Tuskegee program. However, the war ended before Keel and the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) saw action. Daniel left the military in 1946 and secured a commercial pilot’s license. However, due to discrimination a Black man would not regularly pilot a major commercial airliner for nearly 20 years. Instead, Mr. Keel started an electrical contracting firm.

Mr. Keel told those present that as a teenager he was “impressed by newsreels, the Air Corps uniform and the relatively high pay.” Former Flight Officer Keel explained that he was “the only pilot to be triple rated. He earned pilot, navigator and bombardier ratings.” Mr. Keel encountered a racist lieutenant colonel at Midland Army Air Field, Texas. The officer “vowed to get rid of all the Black cadets, and he was able to wash out all but 3.” McGee was one of trio.

The panelists indicated that the Black fliers had three dedicated and outstanding role models and leaders during their training and operational periods. One was Moton Field’s Civilian Pilot Training director Charles “Chief” Anderson. The second was a Caucasian Southerner by the name of Noel F. Parrish, who was commander of Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1942-1946. The third was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was the commander of the Air Corps’ 99th Fighter Squadron and later the 332nd Fighter Group.

Kermit Weeks addresses the crowd before his aerial demonstration.Photo: John Stemple

Kermit Weeks addresses the crowd before his aerial demonstration.
Photo: John Stemple

At the end, panelists reminded the youngsters of the secret (the “4 Ps”) to success. The first “P” is to perceive. One must determine what one is good at doing. The Second “P” is to prepare yourself through education to follow the dream. A third “P” represents performance. One must consistently strive toward excellence. The final “P” stands for perseverance. One should not permit others to deter from achieving a goal.

Kermit Weeks taxies the P-51C to the runway.Photo: John Stemple

Kermit Weeks taxies the P-51C to the runway.
Photo: John Stemple

The Tuskegee Airmen proved that Blacks could excel, but change came slowly. An Air University Review (November-December 1981) article titled Black-White Relations in the U.S. Military 1940-1972 provides a brief description of implemented changes relating to race relations. Desegregation came first and on October 30, 1954, the “Department of Defense announced that there were no more all-black units” in the U.S. Army.

USAF and Vietnam veteran William Commerford poses beside the P-51C.Photo: John Stemple

USAF and Vietnam veteran William Commerford poses beside the P-51C.
Photo: John Stemple

William Commerford, a former USAF intelligence specialist and Vietnam veteran, commented about the Tuskegee Airmen: “These aviators were struggling before I was born in August 1943. I can only imagine what they went through breaking into an all white fraternity. In 1961, while stationed with the Air Force in France, segregation still existed. It was not pleasant.”

Problems continued and from 1962 to 1967 the Department of Defense worked toward the goal of eliminating racial discrimination “although not always with success.” The author of the journal article also added the following: “Later, from 1967 to 1972, great pressure from the enlisted ranks pushed the Defense Department even further.”

Kermit Weeks dips a wing during a pass.Photo: John Stemple

Kermit Weeks dips a wing during a pass.
Photo: John Stemple

Recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen’s contributions lagged. Finally, in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the surviving Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, which is the nation’s highest award for civilians. Fantasy of Flight notes that of “the original group of nearly 1,000 trained pilots and 15,000 ground personnel that made up the Tuskegee Airmen, roughly 40 pilots and 200 ground crew are alive today.”

An excellent video about the Tuskegee Airmen is Xenon Pictures’ 2002 documentary titled Nightfighters: The Tuskegee Airmen. Additionally, central Florida residents should note that Fantasy of Flight in Polk City owns 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 honor of the Tuskegee Airmen. The attraction’s Bell P-39 Airacobra is undergoing restoration in Australia.

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The author (John Stemple) thanks the Tuskegee Airmen, Fantasy of Flight, Deatrick Public Relations and William Commerford for their cooperation and assistance.

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