By Ann Patton
Academy Spirit staff
In a large-scale effort to expand the Army Air Corps, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 18 in 1939. One section of that law authorized training programs to employ African-Americans in various areas of the Air Corps.
The first such college was Tuskegee Institute, as it was known then, in Tuskegee, Ala. The first African-American unit was designated the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
During World War II Tuskegee Airmen in the unit, later named the 99th Fighter Squadron, destroyed or damaged 409 enemy aircraft in the Mediterranean and European theaters. Among other awards, individuals in the unit received 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Tuskegee Airmen went on to become Air Force generals.
Cadet candidates at the Academy Preparatory School were privileged to meet and talk with three second-generation Tuskegee Airmen during their visit Feb. 26.
“This is a very special treat, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion,” Prep School military commander Lt. Col. Ida Widmann told the students. “Consider it an honor.”
The Air Force became racially integrated officially in 1949, but African-American Airmen still had hurdles to overcome.
“We went through the good, the bad and the ugly,” retired Chief Master Sgt. Loran Smith, 77, told the Prep School students. “We paved the way for your moms and dads.”
Pilot and retired Col. James Randall recalled crossing the Pacific Ocean and musing on opportunities in the Air Force.
“I thought here I am sitting in a $12-million airplane when people a few years ago said I did not have that capability,” he said. “I enjoyed every year I spent in the Air Force.”
Mr. Randall, 83, piloted 75 missions in Korea and was shot down in 1965 during the Vietnam War while flying an F-105 on his 44th mission.
The three Prep School guests are members of the Hooks Jones chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., which among its interests are scholarships. All emphasized their dedication to service above all and pride in it.
“We fought and flew combat for our country,” Mr. Smith said.
Retired Colonel Lowell Bell, 75, retired in 1978 with more than 6,000 flying hours. A graduate of what is now known as Tuskegee University, he took advantage of the opportunities in the Air Force.
“I piggy-backed on those who came before me and made the most of it,” he said.
The guests spoke individually and also fielded questions after their presentations. The three had plenty of advice for the cadet candidates on issues involving the military and the students’ futures.
Discipline was one of those issues.
“Rules are OK,” Mr. Bell said. “They are made for a specific purpose. At some point you are going to be the rule makers.”
Promotions were another issue interesting Prep School students.
Mr. Bell said there is no sure fire method for obtaining them.
“Push the guy in front of you up the ladder,” he said. “It’s easier than trying to go around him.”
The Tuskegee Airmen encouraged students to continue to learn after their Academy days.
Mr. Smith summed up his three keys to success very simply: education, education, education.
Mr. Bell said the cadet candidates have much to offer prospective cadets, even in their hometowns.
“I encourage you to look how you got here and what you will do with it,” he said and urged them to contact their high schools and stress the importance of language, math and science.
The Prep School students, many of whom gathered around the Airmen after the formal session, appreciated their visit and its significance.
“I got to see some real history and was interested in everything they said,” said Cadet Candidate Su Kim.
“It’s always good to hear what others have to say, especially when it’s history of importance,” said Cadet Candidate Nick Clayton.
Cadet Cody Felipe expressed his appreciation for the speakers’ accomplishments.
“It’s good to know what they initiated for us,” he said. “It felt good to be in their presence.”
Of the original 916 Tuskegee Airmen, 130 are still alive.