The Tuskegee Airmen were named for the African-American men who underwent pilot training in Tuskegee, Ala., during World War II. Prior to 1947, the military was strictly segregated according to race, and as many as 992 men trained in Tuskegee and nearly 450 became fighter pilots (As many as 10,000 African-American maintenance specialists trained at Chanute Field, Ill.).
The fighter pilots entered the war and became members of the 332nd Fighter Group. They flew P-51C Mustangs and escorted bomber formations that attacked Germany. The 332nd earned a nickname "Red Tailed Devils" because of the red painted tails of their airplanes and their record of never losing a bomber to enemy fighters.
They flew as many as 1,500 missions, including 700 bomber escort missions during World War II. White fighter pilots flew no more than 52 missions while African American pilots flew as many as 100 missions due to lack of replacements. Sixty-six died in combat, and 33 became prisoners of war.
Despite their combat records, the Tuskegee Airmen suffered racial discrimination, both in the military and outside, and had to endure slow promotions and ill treatment by a nation they fought for.
Feelings were still deep, and during the hangar visit, the men talked about their backgrounds.
"I always liked airplanes," said Colonel Stewart, a Broomfield Hills, Mich., resident. "I was raised near LaGuardia Airport, New York, and airplanes fascinated me."
Colonel Stewart enlisted in the military at age 19, completed flight training, and went to Italy to join the 332nd. After the war, he returned to the United States where he flew the P-47N Thunderbolt. He was a co-winner of the 1949 gunnery meet.
"I was disappointed in people," he said. "After what we did during the war, we found it difficult in getting jobs. I guess a lot of people wanted what was familiar, but we were treated like second class citizens.
"Today, there's an awakening. I think the Air Force moved to the forefront (in racial integration). Give them credit. But even today, it's not 100 percent. There might be token resistance here and there."
Referring to racist attitudes after World War II, Sergeant Johnson said, "A 5-year-old would have known something was wrong. (Gen. Daniel) Chappie James said, 'If you know something is wrong and you don't do something about it, you're part of the problem.'
"I've seen changes for the better, but these two gentlemen (referring to Colonels Stewart and Harvey) were the best pilots, and they were lieutenants. They should have been majors or lieutenant colonels (after World War II). With integration in 1947, we should have been promoted. We were already qualified.
"Beside your name in personnel files, they'd put a little 'n.' It seemed that the (Executive Order) 9981, when it went out of (President) Truman's office, didn't reach everyone, but we have a way in the United States to change things to the way we want them.
"You get 25,567 days to live. About 8,000 days, you sleep. 8,000 days you work, and 8,000 days is your time. Why should we spend part of our 8,000 workdays putting up with racism?"
Colonel Harvey felt that considering the racist attitudes during World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were "more patriotic" than some others.
"When we went to flying school, we were doing it for our people," he said. "It's our country too."