Harry Stewart looks around the slowly filling ballroom in an Orlando, Fla., hotel and brightens.
"I haven't seen some of these guys in over 66 years," he says. "Some I haven't seen since I entered the service, and others since I left at the end of the war. This is very exciting."
The war Stewart is referring to is World War II, when the Army was still segregated. Stewart is part of a reunion of Red Tail pilots, members of the 332nd Fighter Group. They're part of the Tuskegee Airmen, an organization composed of World War II fliers and the thousands of people on the ground who made their missions possible.
The event's organizer, Leo Gray, says he realized earlier this year that time was zipping by. One of their members, Lee Archer, considered by some to be the country's only World War II black ace pilot (his plane was emblazoned with five swastikas, one for each German plane downed), died last year.
Gray wanted to bring the remaining pilots together again. "Nothing official," he explained. "I wanted this to be social, to give the guys plenty of time to spend with each other, because you never know what's going to happen, or when somebody's going to go next."
It's a pretty safe guess that "next" may not be too far off: The youngest Red Tail pilot is 86, the oldest 96. Many are infirm and unable to travel. Others could only come with the assistance of younger family members. But about a dozen ended up drinking a little, laughing a lot and sharing war stories.
Tales Of The Red Tails
Alexander Jefferson, a small, trim man with a silver mustache, told of being shot down on Aug. 12, 1944. He was strafing German radar stations when his plane was hit. He lost consciousness after the crash, and awakened to a German pointing a gun at him and shouting, "Naeger! Naeger!"
"I thought, 'Oh, crap — even in Germany!' " Jefferson laughed, shaking his head. "But it turned out he wasn't saying the other word — that was their word for negro."
In fact, the German soldier's commanding officer saluted Jefferson when he took the pilot into custody. "I was treated like an officer the whole time I spent in POW camp," Jefferson said.
Jefferson was poring over photos with Hiram Mann, an ebullient octogenarian whose impish personality earned him the nickname "Gremlin."
Mann said that when he entered the service, he was "a little older than some of the other guys."
"I was 21 and married," he said.
He was reporting back to base to fly an important mission when he was grounded by the base flight surgeon, who thought Mann and his buddies hadn't spent enough downtime before their next flight.
Mann's plane, Boss Lady (his affectionate nickname for his wife), was assigned to another pilot — who didn't make it back. "I often think about it," Mann said. "And I think, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' But he could have been in a different space than I would have been, I don't know."
The date for the gathering, March 24, was chosen to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the Mission to Berlin, the longest nonstop mission in the European theater. The Red Tails took off from their base at Ramitelli, Italy, and accompanied a group of bombers to Berlin, where they destroyed the Daimler Benz tank assembly plant. They returned covered in glory and citations — until they got back to the States.
"Coming back on the boat," Jefferson recalled, "got to New York Harbor, the flags waving, the Statue of Liberty. Walked down the gangplank, and a little soldier at the bottom said, 'Whites to the right, niggers to the left.' "
A Delayed Salute
The Tuskegee Airmen, and especially the Red Tails, would be held up as examples of excellence in the black community for decades.
Robert Martin likes to say he flew 63 1/2 missions during the war. What would have been his 64th ended when he was shot down over then-Yugoslavia.
His daughter Noelle said that growing up, she sometimes had to sit on herself to not brag about her father. "I always wanted to say: There's my dad, and he's a Tuskegee Airman," she said.
Leo Gray's daughter, Kathy Bryant, said she'd think about her father when she was being racially harassed in her workplace and say to herself, "What he did was harder. If he can do it, you can do it."
But they were off much of America's radar screen. Say "war hero," and the visual that came to mind was automatically white. Many of the airmen became involved in the country's civil rights movement, fighting what historians now call a second front.
"We fought fascism and Nazism, and won," said one of the airmen firmly. "Then we had to come home and fight racism. And we were going to win that, too."
They did. The Red Tails' stellar war records demolished the canard that blacks weren't intelligent or coordinated enough to operate airplanes. It forever erased doubts about black pilots' patriotism and bravery. And, said Col. George Hardy, when the Air Force became a separate branch of service after the war, "a lot of officers that had been in the Army Air Force were now in important positions in the Air Force, and they remembered what they'd seen."
The Air Force commissioned a study on integrating the branch in November 1947, and in April 1948, the Air Force announced it would integrate — this was before President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
It was no small feat. And eventually, the Red Tails received accolades from beyond the black community: In 2007, President George W. Bush (the son of George H.W. Bush, a World War II fighter pilot) presented them with the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda.
At the conclusion of his welcome, Bush told the airmen that he'd like to offer a gesture, a symbol "to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" they had endured over the years. "So on behalf of the office I hold and a country that honors you, I salute you," he said. They saluted back.
Their heightened profile has made them rock stars. At their hotel, the Red Tails couldn't finish meals without being interrupted and asked to sign autographs. Eager parents pushed shy children toward them, asking if they'd take a picture.
"You don't get this now," one mother told her reluctant 4-year-old, "but you'll be glad you have this later on. This is history, honey."
Navy men and women meeting in the Red Tails' hotel asked if they'd speak to their group and take a few photos. The lines went through the lobby as men and women in uniform — and several retired military — waited patiently to have their picture taken with the pilots.
Looking on, Capt. Art Pruitt smiled. "It's funny, we were just watching everybody taking pictures of them — it's like the paparazzi: These guys are rock stars. And to be able to honor them this way, it's just an honor and a privilege."
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
I'm Melissa Block.
And next we're going to spend some time with a special group of World War II veterans. Last month, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black fighter pilots, came together for what could very well be their last reunion. They met in Florida, and NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates was there.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: They come in one by one or in small groups. Some have the brisk pace and erect posture that speaks of their military history. Others walk a little more slowly. Several have younger family members hovering protectively nearby, and a few roll by or are pushed in wheelchairs. Many haven't seen each other for seven decades.
Unidentified Man #1: Nice to see you.
GRIGSBY BATES: They're all former pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, black men who fought to be allowed to fight in the air in World War II.
Lieutenant Colonel Harry Stewart, trim and crisp, came from Michigan and says all these men made a special effort to get here.
HARRY STEWART: There's 355 pilots were sent overseas. Of that 355, only 46 are living today. Their ages vary anywhere from 86 to 96.
GRIGSBY BATES: In other words, there's not a lot of time left, which is why they've come tonight.
STEWART: Leo Gray, one of our members, thought that it would be nice if we could go ahead and call upon those 46 that are living now to come down to Orlando, which we have done, and just join maybe one more time for our last hurrah.
GRIGSBY BATES: About a dozen of them were able to make it, and they came in good spirits with lots of stories.
Alexander Jefferson, a small man with a precise silver moustache, told about being gunned out of the sky during a mission.
ALEXANDER JEFFERSON: I was shot down August 12th, 1944, strafing radar stations. And I was knocked out. So I spent nine months in Germany as a prisoner of war.
GRIGSBY BATES: How'd the Germans treat you?
JEFFERSON: As an officer and a gentleman: No beatings, no torture because of the Geneva Convention.
GRIGSBY BATES: Nearby sits Hiram Mann, a chipper man who was nicknamed Gremlin by his colleagues. Mann remembers how he was saved by a twist of fate. He flew 48 missions during the war, but the base flight surgeon wouldn't clear him and some of his squadron mates to go back so soon. So someone else was tapped to fly Boss Lady, the plane he'd named after his wife. Mann saw the change on the duty roster
HIRAM MANN: Well, they scratched out my name in pencil, his name above mine to fly in my place. He said: They've got me scheduled to fly your plane again. Is that OK? Well, what are you supposed to say, no, you can't do it? You know, yeah, it's OK.
GRIGSBY BATES: Not so OK for the pilot: Boss Lady never returned.
MANN: I think about it. I say: There but for the grace of God go I. But then I may not have been in the exact spot in the air when he was shot down.
GRIGSBY BATES: During World War II, a number of black men volunteered to become pilots, but the segregated military refused their offer. A 1925 report by the Army War College claimed blacks weren't intelligent or coordinated enough to fly complicated machinery. It also questioned their courage.
It took the outrage of the black press and a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before an experimental program that would train black pilots was established. A vintage Air Force newsreel tells the story
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
Unidentified Man #2: In July of 1941, five young Negroes made aviation history at Tuskegee, Alabama. These five young men were the first of their race to graduate under the Army Air Force's newly organized plan for training Negro pilots.
GRIGSBY BATES: Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained, and about a third of them were posted to Europe.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE)
GRIGSBY BATES: The Germans called them Schwartze Vogelmenschen, or Black Birdmen, and they said that with great respect and considerable apprehension. The Allies called the pilots Red Tail Angels for their protection and for the signature color on their planes' tails.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) For we are heroes of the night. (Unintelligible) flight.
GRIGSBY BATES: This meeting in Orlando was chosen to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the mission to Berlin, the longest round-trip mission undertaken by the 15th Air Force during World War II. The goal: Take off from Ramitelli, Italy, escort bombers to Berlin, destroy the Daimler/Benz tank works there and return, 1,600 miles nonstop. Mission accomplished.
They'd served their country well, but when the Red Tails returned, Alex Jefferson says it was business as usual.
JEFFERSON: Coming back on the boat, got to New York Harbor and the flags waving, Statue of Liberty, walked down the gang plank. A little white soldier at the bottom says: Whites to the right, niggers to the left, coming back home. You talk about startling. God.
GRIGSBY BATES: Colonel George Hardy says the Red Tails' performance made a lasting impression when the Air Force became a separate branch of the service after the war. Hardy says based on its experience with the Red Tail pilots, the Air Force commissioned a study on the feasibility of integration in November, 1947.
GEORGE HARDY: And then in April of '48, the Air Force announced they were going to integrate. That was before President Truman signed that executive order.
GRIGSBY BATES: The order that eventually would integrate all branches of the service.
Brigadier General Stayce Harris counts herself as a direct beneficiary of the Red Tails' efforts. Harris is the first African-American woman to command an Air Force flight unit. She's now mobilization reserve assistant to the commander of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command.
STAYCE HARRIS: What they did, how much it meant to not just blacks in the service but to everyone in the military as far as desegregation, as far as paving the way, as far as demonstrating that blacks could fly, as far as just being American heroes, to this day is still overwhelming to me.
GRIGSBY BATES: You look like it still sends you shivers.
HARRIS: It does.
GRIGSBY BATES: Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray, the event's organizer, says he and his fellow pilots didn't consider themselves heroes.
LEO GRAY: We thought we were just doing what we had to do at the time, and we had no idea we were going to have the impact that it did.
GRIGSBY BATES: Even if for years that impact was persistently ignored outside the black community. In 2007, President George W. Bush invited all surviving Tuskegee Airmen - pilots, ground crew, technicians - to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
GEORGE W: I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so on behalf of the office I hold and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GRIGSBY BATES: They're getting used to the accolades. At the Red Tail pilots' reunion in Orlando, Navy personnel at a conference in the same hotel stood in long lines to have their picture taken with this group of proud, elderly men. Captain Art Pruitt explained why.
ART PRUITT: These gentlemen literally changed the course of history and broke down one of the hugest barriers in the military, the race barrier, the color barrier. They are the heroes of our past generations. And being able to honor them like this is truly a privilege for a guy in uniform still.
GRIGSBY BATES: Then he turned back one last time to gaze at the men who flew into American history.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.