By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The Tuskegee Airmen secured their place in history more than 60 years ago by doing what few people thought they could. They overcame naysayers in the U.S. Army Air Corps before they overcame the Luftwaffe in the skies over Italy and Germany. Their legendary story has inspired numerous books and one movie … and thousands of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets.
Six Tuskegee Airmen visited the Air Force Academy April 24 to share their stories with the Air Force’s next generation of leaders. Among them were three veterans of the original Tuskegee Airmen: Dr. Granville Coggs, retired Col. Fitzroy “Buck” Newsum and Samuel Hunter Jr.
Dr. Coggs, a resident of San Antonio, was the first Tuskegee Airman to arrive. He spoke to about a dozen cadets during a World War II history class. Born in 1925, Dr. Coggs first became interested in flying after he saw a plane fly low over his hometown of Little Rock, Ark.
“As soon as I saw that plane, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
He volunteered to join the Army and sought an opportunity to fly. His dream abruptly met the Pentagon’s conventional wisdom.
“The traditional wisdom was that blacks could not fly planes,” Dr. Coggs said. “They didn’t think we were smart enough to fly.”
The Army established a training program for black Airmen at Tuskegee University, Ala., in 1940 as an experiment to see whether the conventional wisdom held any truth. More than 1,000 students, including Dr. Coggs, went through training there. Dr. Coggs was assigned to the 477th Bombardier Group and finished his pilot training in October 1945.
“When people asked me where I flew during the war, I told them, ‘South America.’ When they asked where in South America, I told them: Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas,” he joked.
Mr. Newsum, another of the guests, showed cadets items from his collection of Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia, including photos of Tuskegee Airmen. Visible in some of the black and white photos were P-51 Mustangs, their tails painted darker than the rest of the aircraft. Had the photos been in color, they would have shown the trademark “Red Tail” that let B-25 Mitchell bomber crews know they were in safe hands.
“That was part of the mystique surrounding the Tuskegee Airmen,” Dr. Coggs said. “The Tuskegee Airmen pilots were damn good and damn dedicated. (Then Lt. Col.) Ben Davis Jr. knew that we had to be better than ‘good.’ We painted the tail fins red so the bombers would know who was escorting them.”
Dr. Cobbs, along with Mr. Newsum and Mr. Hunter, attended the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the United States’ 44th president.
“He invited us because he knew that he had reached that office because of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Dr. Coggs said. “That was one high point of my year. Another is being here today.”
Cadets with the Academy’s Way of Life Committee typically volunteer their time to make sure the Tuskegee Airmen’s annual visit runs smoothly. Cadet 1st Class Harvey White III has twice escorted the Tuskegee Airmen, both for this visit and for one in 2007.
“The Tuskegee Airmen are part of my heritage,” said Cadet White, who wants to become a fighter pilot after he graduates in a few weeks. “They were the first black pilots, and I came here with dreams of being a pilot. I knew about the Tuskegee Airmen before I came here, so I thought it would be cool to see the legends, the history.”
The cadet said his first meeting with the Tuskegee Airmen during their 2007 visit was awe-inspiring.
“I didn’t ask too many questions,” he said. “It was enough to be in their presence and let them interact with one another.”
Cadet White said that meeting the Tuskegee Airmen reinforced his desire to serve his country.
“What they accomplished is a lot tougher than what I’ve gone through,” he said. “They had to work with people who didn’t want to work with them, and they did it with class.”
The Tuskegee Airmen led the nation toward an era where, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, men would be judged “based not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.” But, Dr. Coggs warned, the United States isn’t there yet.
“But such great progress! If you asked me 10 years ago if a black man could be president, my answer would have been no. But I view the glass as half full rather than half empty.”
Col. Mark Wells, head of the Academy’s History Department, thanked the Tuskegee Airmen for their contributions to the Academy and to the Air Force.
“The words that come to my mind are remembering the past and embracing the future,” Colonel Wells said. “These words resonate. The lessons of patriotism and courage that the Tuskegee Airmen and other veterans of the second world war … have taught us will never be forgotten.”