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In the presence of history: Tuskegee Airmen share their story to keep legacy alive

POSTED: May 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Donald Summerlin signs a Tuskegee Airmen book Wednesday afternoon at Gainesville State College's Continuing Education Building prior to the evening's program about America's first black military airmen.

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Sometimes the country’s first black military airmen receive a dull, two paragraph blurb in scholastic history books.

But the remaining Tuskegee Airmen make a sharp point to educate people about their historical significance.

Three members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black U.S. military pilots, shared their memories of the military in the days of segregation during a Wednesday visit to Gainesville State College.

The airmen were the first to prove wrong a 1930s study that said black men were unintelligent and incapable of handling complex situations such as air combat.

One of them is quick to say he is not a hero, but proof that blacks are not inferior to whites.

"Everybody says we’re heroes," said Chief Master Sgt. Donald Summerlin. "We was an experiment designed to make us ... black boys look bad; now here’s my answer: wrong, we are somebody."

Tuskegee Airman John Stewart told the small crowd assembled in the auditorium that being a Tuskegee Airman was about claiming the equality of blacks in the United States.

"The main purpose of our fight was to prove to the world that we wanted to fight for this country, even though it was segregation time," said Tuskegee Airman John Stewart, originally from Fitzgerald.

"They wanted to show the rest of the world that yes, I’m a part of this country; I want to be a part of this country and I can definitely fight," said Stewart.

There were two sets of the Tuskegee Airmen: the first group, which graduated military training in 1941, and the second group, which later reported to Korea.

Flight Officer Hiram E. Little, originally of Putnam County, was one of the first of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Little spent nine months training at Chanute Field in Illinois during his four-year, seven-month and six-day service in the United States Army Air Forces.

Little told the group at Gainesville State that he was happy with his job, because in the days of "poverty with a capital ‘p’" he was getting a regular paycheck.

"After I’d been in (the service) about two weeks, I said ‘I’m gone stay in here about 35 years, at least,’" Little told the audience Wednesday.

But when his commanding officer drafted an order that segregated the officers’ clubs to have one for whites and one for blacks, Little was no longer happy, and refused to sign the order. Little is now dubbed "Jailbird," because his refusal to obey a commanding officer’s orders in the "Freeman Field Mutiny" landed him 13 days in the military prison in Leavenworth, Kan.

Little was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton, but the incident made him decide he wanted to leave the Army.

Summerlin, the grandson of a slave originally from Adel, became an aircraft engine mechanic when his grandmother helped him lie about his age to join the Army. Summerlin soon found himself at Chanute Field, training for an experiment that was expected to fail — the Tuskegee Airmen experiment.

Because he knew the war department expected the black airmen to fail, Summerlin promised himself to do a little better every day of his 43 years of military service in a segregated branch of the Army that received "hand-me-down" aircraft.

"They said that we didn’t have any retainability ... dumb, lower than the lowest white trash, but I’m still here," said Summerlin. "We succeeded in telling our own war department ‘you politicians are liars,’ and we set out to prove it.

"We were united and we said ‘War department, go to hell. We are good,’" said Summerlin.

And they were able to prove that they were not a failure. Although some Tuskegee Airmen were shot and killed, the Tuskegee Airmen, or the "Redtails," never lost a bomber they were protecting to enemy aircraft fire.

The fact has been disputed by some scholars, but Summerlin said it’s true that the Tuskegee Airmen brought all of the bombers they were protecting back safely.

"You can lay gospel on that, because I was there," said Summerlin.

"We did such a great job until the white pilots requested that we escort them to Berlin to bomb Berlin," said Tuskegee Airman John Stewart.

Summerlin said his toughest mission was the preparation of the planes for a 30-hour trip deep into Berlin.

"The toughest part was waiting to watch and see if your bird was coming back," said Summerlin. "The work was nothing. ... But watching to see if that pilot is going to come back, that’s the toughest part of any mission ... your mission don’t end until your bird is on (the ground) and we pat each other on the head and you can smile."

Their history and their struggles as military men in a segregated nation amazed those who attended, and moved others to tears.

"To think that we have history sitting here with us is an amazing thing," said André Cheek before she introduced the airmen.

Cheek is the director of the Office of Minority Affairs at Gainesville State.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s bravery touched a member of the audience, Vincent Ferrara, to the point of tears Wednesday evening.

Ferrara, who was trained with some of them in Alpena, Mich., spoke of the segregated air fields, and remembered how the Germans were afraid of the "Redtail" planes that the Tuskegee Airmen flew.

"They forbade us to go over to talk to them as fellow pilots, I have never forgotten that. I was bitter about it. All of the white pilots were for you guys. We prayed for you. ... God bless you."

After the Tuskegee Airmen’s presentation, Ferrara said he was glad the airmen make a point to continue their legacy.

"They have never been given the credit that was due to them," Ferrara said.


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