By Ann Patton
Academy Spirit staff writer
Three Tuskegee Airmen spoke with visitors, answered questions and shared experiences as part of the Academy’s celebration of Black History Month at the Academy Base Exchange Tuesday.
Samuel Hunter Jr., retired Col. Lowell Bell and retired Chief Master Sgt. Loran Smith are all members of the Denver-based Hubert L. “Hooks” Jones chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
“It’s history. It’s American history,” said retired Chief Smith, a second-generation Tuskegee Airman. “The Tuskegee Airmen have a great legacy.”
In the backdrop of the Tuskegee Airmen visit was a Tribute to Jazz and Poetry exhibit featuring Louis Armstrong, Maya Angelou, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. A five-piece jazz band from Air Academy High School entertained shoppers with jazz selections.
Public Law 18, passed by Congress in 1939, included authorization for training programs to employ African-Americans in various areas of the Army Air Corps. The first such training program was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron. Tuskegee Airmen received 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses for World War II service, and three Tuskegee Airmen went on to become Air Force generals.
Mr. Hunter, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, went to the Tuskegee Institute, Ala., in 1942 as a B-25 pilot by way of civilian pilot training he received at West Virginia State University. He recalled the undercurrent thinking that blacks were not capable of pilot training. To disprove the notion, black pilots had to be exceptional.
“We feel we laid the groundwork for the future of blacks in the Air Force and also for airline pilots,” he said.
He recalled his three-year Tuskegee experience and his first solo flight in a 65-horsepower Piper Cub, an aircraft with “about the power of a lawnmower.”
“I thought, look at me up here in the air. Now all I have to do is get down,” he said.
In the beginning Tuskegee pilot trainees had to be college graduates. Later, younger candidates were allowed in the training.
“At 18, they couldn’t get a driver’s license, but they could fly an airplane,” he said.
During the three years at Tuskegee, Mr. Hunter said he had a chance meeting with a close white high school friend, then also a pilot, from their days at Colorado Springs High School, now Palmer High School, and his brothers from the national college fraternity Omega Phi Psi.
Colonel Bell retired in 1978 with more than 6,000 flying hours. He is a graduate of what is now known as Tuskegee University.
The trio are also meeting with youngsters at the Youth Center today.
Mr. Smith said he entered the Air Force at age 21 in 1952, during the sometimes-uneasy transition period following racial integration of the Air Force
in 1949. He stayed in for the next 29 years.
“We were a fighting unit, and we must get along to survive,” he said of the bottom line, guiding principle.