Becoming a Tuskegee Airman
Tuskegee Army Flying School
"I just about knew it was gonna happen. I was the right age. I was about…18, 19 at that time, and…I felt I was gonna go. I did learn, however, that if you volunteer, sometime you can pick the service that you want, and when I got to Tuskegee…it had just been decided that they were gonna let black people fly. Oooh-wee! And I would see these black cadets marching on Tuskegee’s campus, flying these airplanes, and I said, 'Ah! Gotta be there, gotta fly!'
Well…[the airmen]…they really didn’t walk about, they marched about. They had jobs to do and they were always very busy. But I liked the uniform. But I think most of all, I liked the fact that the girls liked them. [chuckles] I learned that most of ’em were…college graduates, and they went to big schools, bigger than Tuskegee, and we would…wish that we could have gone to those kinds of schools.
But the Air Force had very high requirements. Initially, you had to have two years of college just to get into the Air Force. Later, that was changed. All you had to do was pass an examination. So at the end of my sophomore year, I decided to try for the Air Corps. And I took the exam and I passed and I was accepted.
So when I was accepted, I came back to Tuskegee and I stayed at the same dormitory I lived in as a student, so we stayed there a few weeks, maybe five or six weeks, and then we went to the actual army base to begin training to become flying people.
This big base was built to train black people to fly. It’s called the Tuskegee Army Flying School, that was the name of it. There was…a great effort to get as many black people involved as possible, so they got a black contractor to build the base.
The training was very rigorous—physically and mentally. You must be well disciplined to be an Air Force personnel. So at the training, we went there and we had Ground School, we had Physical Training, we had to take push ups, sit ups, get very…good physical condition. I was able to meet…a lot of youngsters from other parts of the nation: California, New York, one boy there from Alabama…we’re about the same age, of course. We looked alike. They used to call us 'The Gold Dust Twins.' [chuckles]
When the program first got started…the pilots were going to be fighter pilots. One person, one engine. And, for every plane, for every person that’s in the sky, there are dozens of people on the ground that keep those planes flying. So people had to go to school to learn to be radio mechanics, engine mechanics, propeller mechanics, and they went to different schools to get their training, and of course they came to Tuskegee, and they put together a combat unit…and these guys was one squadron, I don’t know how many people there…but they were called the 99th Squadron, and eventually they got enough of them together to send them to combat, and they did.
I don’t remember the unit that they joined, but the guy who ran that unit…didn’t want them. And they stayed there for about three or four days, or three or four weeks, and…the commander said, 'We don’t want them. We don’t need them. They’re no good.' But one member of that group was named Benjamin O. Davis, he was a West Point-er, and he had quite a story to tell just getting through West Point, but that’s another story. And when it was decided that these guys had to go back, they weren’t gonna keep them, I think it was Captain Davis then, he went back to Washington and he had to go to the top general to explain why these Tuskegee Airmen should stay there.
And Marshall was the guy that Captain Davis had to talk to and convince that these are good people, good flyers, good soldiers, they have a right, and they can do the job. And of course, I guess…Captain Davis convinced him, and the 99th stayed, but they were sent to another group. And they did very well in that group."