Written By Harry Stewart
I was born on Independence Day 95 years ago.
On June 27, 1944, I graduated from Tuskegee Army Flying School, established in Alabama shortly before America’s entry into World War II to train young African-American men as Army combat pilots.
My journey to the flight line started in my high-school library in the New York City borough of Queens. I came across a magazine a1ticle about the first all-black flying combat unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. I decided right then that when I turned 18 the squadron was where I wanted to serve. These black flyers had glamom polish, prestige. The Army Air Forces accepted me even though I had no high school diploma. The country needed pilots, I was gung-ho, and I had passed the battery of written tests.
The train ride down South was eye-opening for a teen ager who’d never traveled far from New York. When the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the conductor came by and pointed at me: “Move to the colored car.” It was disconcerting, but I saw it as an un avoidable hurdle to earning my wings. I swallowed hard and kept going.
At Tuskegee Army Airfield, the sky filled with silvery planes emblazoned with the Army Air Forces star-in-circle insignia. The big-barreled trainers emitted a raspy cacophony from their radial engines and fast-turning propellers. You felt you were part of something big, something magnificent. You weren’t just learning to fly; you were serving your country, and you were going to fight.
At the controls of P-51 Mustangs, I flew 43 combat missions with the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Red Tails. Our commander was the legendary Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who had endured four years of the silent treatment from white cadets at West Point but nevertheless managed to graduate 35th out of a class of 276. At our mission briefings, he implored us, “Gentlemen, stay with the bombers!” His convictions were encapsulated in his statement: “The privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them.”
On Easter Sunday 1945, I shot down three long-nosed Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, the best piston fighters in the Luftwaffe inventory. That action resulted in my receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. I was thankful that my country had given me tl1e opportunity to fly and fight, and all these years later I am proud that I contributed to the cause. We called it winning the Double V, victory against totalitarianism abroad and institutional racism at home.
July 4 is my birthday, but I celebrate my country’s birth day too. America was not perfect in the 1940s and is not perfect today, yet I fought for it then and would do so again.
Mr. Stewart is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and subject of a new biography, “Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World War II,” written by Philip Randleman.