Memory: The black Red Tails were America’s best

In conjunction with Juneteenth, I reprise a column that ran in the Philadelphia Daily News in May 2008. It was my privilege to interview two outstanding American heroes.

FLYING TOO FAST and too low to avoid it, Capt. Luther Smith throttled his P-51 Mustang fighter with the red-painted tail right through the fireball exploding before his eyes.

Portrait of a Red Tail P-51 in combat

On the other side of the orange and black hell, Smith clawed for altitude, knowing his Mustang’s wings were badly damaged by the concussion – and his wingman radioed that Smith was leaking fuel.

The wingman was wrong.

Smith checked his fuel gauge and thought he could make it back to his base in Italy from his strafing run over Hungary in October 1944.

He was wrong, too.

Capt. Luther Smith, who died a few months after I interviewed him. (Graphic: Mississippi Valley Publishing)

It wasn’t a fuel leak – it was coolant, and the P-51’s 1,695-horsepower Merlin engine froze up, forcing Smith to bail out over Yugoslavia, on a memorable date: Friday the 13th, on what was supposed to be his 50th and final bomber-escort mission. (He had racked up 83 earlier missions patrolling over the Italian coast.)

His right hip broken, Smith was captured by German soldiers, taken to a small hospital and held as a POW until the war ended seven months later. To his surprise, he was treated well. Unlike some white Americans, the Germans respected his rank.

Now 87, Smith flew with the 332nd Fighter Group, which decades later became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. America’s first African-American military aviators, they compiled an enviable record of courage, discipline and intelligence – qualities the military, and many others, thought blacks were lacking.

The Tuskegee Airmen loved their country more than it loved them.

Smith spent this Memorial Day holiday in a Devon rehab hospital, recovering from surgery on the leg damaged in combat. The injury kept him from becoming a pilot after the war – the injury, and racism.

Eugene Richardson Jr. (Photo: Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen.)

Smith lives in Villanova, not too far from Philadelphian Eugene Richardson Jr., who trained as a pilot but never flew in combat because the war ended before he could get there.

As we fly into the new century, only a few remain of one of World War II’s least-known outfits, one that blew up racial myths along with ammo dumps.

At war’s start, the military barred blacks from “skill jobs,” such as aviators. Under pressure, the Pentagon reluctantly agreed to let Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute train African-American pilots using standards as high as the men’s ambitions: There was a 65 percent washout rate, with the result that the men who graduated were the cream of the cream.

The 332nd’s 200 bomber escort missions all over Europe were carried out without the loss of a single bomber to enemy aircraft, says Smith, repeating the Red Tails legend.

Bomber crews were happy when they saw P-51 Mustangs with the 332nd’s red-painted tails rising to escort them, knowing that those pilots in their beloved Mustangs would cover them like melted butter on corn.

“It was the turning point in our history,” says Smith. “For the first time, black people and white people were called on to do something together without regard to color.”

It was, however, just a beginning. When peace came, neither Smith nor Richardson could fulfill their dreams to be aviators. Despite the 332nd’s stellar record, African-Americans were not wanted.

After discharge, Richardson went to Temple and graduated in 1952 with a degree in marketing. He wanted to be an assistant buyer at Lit Brothers, where he had worked part-time in the stockroom while in college, “but they weren’t hiring black people for those positions,” he told me, matter-of-factly.

Did it make him angry?

“Well, you grew up knowing there’s racism and segregation and discrimination, so this is just another one of those things,” he said, with a small shrug.

After selling cemetery lots for a while, he took a shot at substitute-teaching in math and science – and liked it. He went back to college, got accredited and became a Philadelphia school teacher, retiring in 1991 as the principal of a middle school.

Richardson, 82, did not let himself be defeated by the small minds and prejudices of others. Although he was blown off course, he chose a new one and succeeded. America started changing her unequal ways too late for him, but in time for his son, Eugene III, who is now a captain for American Airlines.

Smith’s tale was similar. After service, he returned to school, and earned an engineering degree at the University of Iowa, but couldn’t find a job.

“We had fought a war for freedom in Europe, but we didn’t find any at home,” he says. At least not until President Harry S Truman, who had earlier desegregated the military, ordered that defense contractors be equal-opportunity employers.

Smith left Iowa for a job as an aerospace engineer at General Electric, at 32nd and Chestnut, where he spent 37 years. “My objective was to be respected, to see opportunities for black people who were properly trained,” Smith says. His son, Gordon, is a vice president at JPMorgan Chase.

The son of one Tuskegee Airman a high-flying pilot, another flying high on Wall Street. That’s enormous change in a single generation.

“It all began,” says Smith, with a sweet smile, “with what we did in the skies over Europe in 1944, in the Mustang.” 

7 thoughts on “Memory: The black Red Tails were America’s best”

  1. Stu, your heartfelt story touches on many of today’s challenges and confrontations with almost simplistic answers. Racism, bigotry, or just the hate of pigmentation fester because of many failures of all participants. These warriors courageously and without hesitation or fear of death contributed greatly to the freedoms we enjoy today. After their service, they returned to a world of bias and suppression by their countryman and once again showed that perseverance and education can overcome ignorance, indifference and suppression.
    Their public service though a great success story sadly only puts a dent in the overall bigotry and racial attitudes prevalent today in our society. We have stagnated and failed to confront the underlying causes of racism and bigotry in our country. To make any change of perception or system of hateful rhetoric is at best a conundrum. I would hope answers are on the horizon but we have become so entrenched in our positions it must be accomplished in the early years of schooling. Our young students should be given the National Geographic test to show ancestry and family origin. The proven scientific history of our species emanating from Africa to show we are all from the same human seeds is indisputable. The most difficult situation n my eyes are to deflate the hate and disdain for simple pigmentation. In simplistic terms If children can enjoy a Hershey bar or vanilla ice cream then the color is recognizable as being something enjoyable and acceptable. To judge what is inside a man must begin with accepting the outer layer first but at the same time, many of both races have offered bandaid solutions like unfunding police, destroying history, and more entitlement programs that lead to a failed socialist system. Without competent “profile in courage” leadership and a youthful learning process based on curriculum, not an agenda using facts, research, and personnel one on one communications we will be frozen in time.

    r

    r

    1. So well put, Tom!! You are spot on! How can we help? I feel like we are voices lost in the wind!
      Your words:
      To judge what is inside a man must begin with accepting the outer layer first but at the same time, many of both races have offered bandaid solutions like unfunding police, destroying history, and more entitlement programs that lead to a failed socialist system. Without competent “profile in courage” leadership and a youthful learning process based on curriculum, not an agenda using facts, research, and personnel one on one communications we will be frozen in time.

      r

  2. HAPPY SATURDAY !!!
    I can’t imagine what these men went through to get their wings. For that matter, any black man, then or now. I heard the stories from my parents, about “not being accepted”. That’s a far cry from being hated because of the color of your skin.
    “It’s the luck of the draw, that you are who you are.”. Worst case; you born in a third world country, you complain about not having dinner. BANG ! problem solved.
    Tony

  3. One summer when I was 15 years old I took a train trip to Norfolk, Virginia with a friend whose dad was a bigwig with the old Pennsylvania RR, so we rode for free. We went to Norfolk because my friend wanted to buy a BB pistol, which was sold openly there but banned in Pennsylvania. It was a very hot day, and while walking down the street, an old black man standing in front of a store on crutches handed me some money and asked me to go into the store and buy him a cold Coke. Like a dumb kid I asked him, “Why don’t you go in and buy it yourself?” He looked at me like I was crazy and said with no emotion, “I’m not allowed in that store.” I should have known better because in the Norfolk train station I had seen the ‘colored only’ water fountain and bathrooms. This was 1955. Fast forward to 1960 when I was in Air Force basic training in San Antonio. I was in town with a couple of my barrack mates, black airmen, and I spotted a movie I wanted to see. I suggested we go in. They said, “We’re not allowed in that theater.” These incidents — especially the one in Norfolk — shaped my thinking forever. To this day it appalls me to think it took until 1964 (The Civil Rights Act) to give to blacks what supposedly was guaranteed to them in the Constitution. The Tuskegee Airmen (indeed, all blacks who served in the military in WWII) are true heroes who came home to find nothing had changed…and wouldn’t until 1964. And then it took a whole lot of shootings and beatings and murders to earn the simple right to sit at a lunch counter or ride in the front of a bus in the South. Who can blame our black brothers and sisters for feeling put upon? I’m surprised the black nation never rose up and started its own civil war.

    1. Vince,
      When I was in Memphis in ’65, a of us went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, just because. As we crossed from Tennessee into MS., there was a bill board. KKK meeting on such a night at somebody’s farm. You all can speculate the rest.
      But you didn’t have to leave Philly back then – or even now – to see segregation. As I said earlier, we all saw or heard of our parents being held back. Nothing like the cross that was put to the blacks. Hopefully, it will pass soon.
      Tony

  4. still HAPPY SATURDAY !!!
    FYI:
    This is for all of you that served our great country. As Veterans, we are entitled to benefits from our government, specifically, the V.A.. It can be a mortgage on your home, medical coverage for you and lastly, death benefits. Take a look at the web site for the V.A., and go from there. This is not a gift. You earned it ! From what I hear, Philly and Coatesville have good medical.
    Pass this message on to any and all Veterans that you know. Get them registered with the county that they live in, and most of all, keep all of your important papers together. Preferably, locked up in a fire proof safe.
    The other thing most of us earned.
    HAPPY FATHERS’ DAY !!!
    HOORAH !
    Tony

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