Famed Tuskegee Airmen included LIers who paid a price abroad and at home
On a World War II strafing mission over Germany in April 1945, Thurston L. Gaines Jr. was attacking a Nazi supply train when his single-engine P-51 Mustang fighter plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire — not once, but twice.
As the cockpit filled with smoke, Gaines, 22, from Freeport, realized his controls were damaged, his options growing more limited by the second.
"I pulled back on the stick and I just cleared that locomotive," Gaines recalled in an interview for the Veterans History Project in 2008.
In that moment he decided: "If the airplane could fly, I'd fly. I would stay with it."
It was a life-or-death decision faced by countless pilots in wartime combat. But this pilot, Gaines, was Black. And though he was willing to fight for his country, even to die for it, he'd nevertheless been forced to train, and live, in segregated conditions. He'd been treated as inferior.
Everywhere, it seemed, but in the sky.
Try as he might, Gaines, who after the war would attend New York University and go on to become a medical examiner, couldn't nurse his wounded fighter back to base at Ramitelli, Italy. Forced to bail out, he became a prisoner of war, held at the infamous Stalag Luft VII-A in Moosburg, Germany, for about a month before being liberated by Gen. George Patton's 14th Armored Division.
Gaines was one of about 3,000 African American men who, between 1941-46, trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in hopes of becoming World War II U.S. Army Air Corps pilots, later to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Of the almost 1,000 men who ultimately graduated from the program, 93 were from New York, 59 of them from New York City, and five from Long Island: 2nd Lt. Samuel G. Leftenant, Amityville; 2nd Lt. Joseph B. Bennett, Halesite; Flight Officer George A. Lynch, Valley Stream; Flight Officer Lee A. Hayes, East Hampton; and Gaines.
The program was started during the Roosevelt administration, which understood that with war looming, the Armed Forces might need to call on all Americans.
Though just 80 years ago, the military was still segregated, with many believing African Americans to be "inferior" as potential troops. A 1925 study commissioned by the Army War College claimed Blacks lacked qualifications necessary to serve.
But as historian Reynard Burns, spokesman for the Long Island-based Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said this week: "The Tuskegee Airmen disproved all of that."
The Tuskegee Airmen were so successful that they helped force an overhaul of the military, with President Harry S. Truman signing Executive Order 99801 in 1948, ordering the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The first class at Tuskegee included 13 candidates, and on March 7, 1942, five pilots, including West Point grad Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., graduated.
Davis, whose father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was the first African American general in any branch of the U.S. military, would go on to become the first African American general in the U.S. Air Force.
Before the program ended, Tuskegee trained about 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and maintenance and support staff, in addition to almost 1,000 pilots — all of whom faced overt racism in the military, as well as while training in the Jim Crow South.
Former Tuskegee Airman William Joseph [Joe] Johnson, who grew up on Cottage Row in Glen Cove, told friends and family how on the trip to Tuskegee in June 1944, he and his fellow Black passengers were herded into the front cars of the train.
In the era of segregation, African Americans were notoriously required to sit in rear seats when using public transportation. But steam locomotives belched soot and ash from the coal burned to power them — and that coal ash and cinder poured in through coach windows open in summer. Which was why, Burns, who gave a presentation on the Tuskegee Airmen at the Bayport-Blue Point Public Library Wednesday night, said Black men like Johnson, who died last month at age 95, were forced to sit up front.
"Many of the airmen were from urban areas, many from the North, and at the Mason-Dixon Line this was their first real exposure to racism in the Jim Crow South," Burns said. "When they arrived at Tuskegee they decided to stay on base, in fear for their lives."
The program got a much-needed boost when, during a 1941 visit by Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady went for a flight with African American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred [Chief] Anderson in a Piper J-3 Cub.
Upon landing, Roosevelt announced: "Well, you can fly, all right."
Roosevelt later used her influence to secure a loan of $175,000 for the building of Tuskegee's Moton Field.
Though conditions at Tuskegee progressively got better, Tuskegee Airmen were afforded little respect within the service. Initial graduates were sent first to bases in North Africa, then Italy, and first flew old P-40 Warhawk fighter planes — borderline obsolete by 1942.
'It wasn't until a white bomber crew crash-landed at the home base of the Red Tails, that crews realized they were Black.'Historian Reynard Burns
Later, Tuskegee pilots were issued P-51 Mustangs, regarded as the best U.S. fighter of World War II, though they were chastened from dogfighting enemy aircraft. Their mission, primarily, was to escort American bombers to and from targets in Europe.
Those fighter planes had tail sections painted bright red, and the Tuskegee Airmen later became known simply as "The Red Tails."
Most white combat crews didn't know the pilots were Black when they requested them for bomber escort roles.
"It wasn't until a white bomber crew crash-landed at the home base of the 'Red Tails,'" Burns said, "that crews realized they were Black."
Though many accounts following the war claimed the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber in their escort, the U.S. Air Force now says that was not true. However, records show the Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,578 total missions, accounting for an impressive 15,533 combat sorties, with an above-average protection rate for bombers in their care.
Tuskegee Airmen accounted for 112 confirmed aerial kills of enemy planes, including two air-to-air combat victories against superior German Luftwaffe ME-262 jet fighters.
Tuskegee pilots were awarded eight Purple Heart medals, 25 Bronze Star medals, 96 Distinguished Flying Cross awards and 1,031 Air Medals.
Eighty-four Tuskegee airmen were killed overseas in World War II, with 30 pilots downed and captured as POWs — among them Thurston Gaines.
One group of Tuskegee Airmen trained to become twin-engine bomber pilots but never saw combat.
"The feeling from the bomber crews I spoke with was that while it was one thing to go one-on-one against white pilots, the U.S. didn't want Black men dropping bombs on white Europeans," Burns said. "Though the government considered using them to bomb Japan, if and when the time came. That they didn't have a problem with."
Many of the great photos documenting the history of Tuskegee Airmen on base overseas and preparing for combat were taken by Antoinette [Toni] Frissell Bacon, a fashion photographer from Manhattan who lived in Stony Brook until her death in 1988 at age 81.
'They built the road, they were the pioneers, they were strong, they were intelligent and they gave us hope...'Terry Finney, daughter of Tuskegee Airman Joe Johnson
One pilot from New York City, August Martin of the Bronx, went on to become the first African American airline pilot in the United States and the first to attain the rank of captain with a commercial airline before being killed on a humanitarian mission as part of the Biafran airlift during the Nigerian Civil War in 1968. August Martin High School in Queens is named for him.
As for Long Islanders, Leftenant was killed in action while escorting bombers to Sankt Veit, Austria, on April 12, 1945.
Posthumously awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart, his body was never recovered. He was remembered with full military honors at a service at Arlington National Cemetery in 2016.
One of 13 children, Leftenant had five brothers who also served in World War II. His name is on the so-called "Tablets of the Missing" at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial in Italy.
And Gaines? In his 2008 videotaped interview, he said that, forced to bail out of his crippled fighter, he landed, hitting the ground hard, injuring his back and shoulder. Quickly, he gathered his parachute and ran into nearby woods.
"There was a group, what seemed to be students on a picnic," he recalled, "and they had to know there was something going on, that [German] soldiers were looking for me. … They indicated to me, go hide in the bushes over there."
Gaines hid. But it wasn't long, he said, before soldiers appeared and confronted the students.
"As soon as they walked in," Gaines said, "the kids said, 'He's over there!' I had a .45 [pistol] but figured I had no chance with it. I was 22 years old but decided now was not the time to be stupid and brave."
Gaines, who died in 2017, said that in one month as a POW at Stalag VII-A, he lost 20 pounds.
"These men," Terry Finney, daughter of Joe Johnson, said, "they built the road, they were the pioneers, they were strong, they were intelligent, and they gave us hope, setting an example for generations that followed."