An aviator's battle: Tuskegee airman remembers
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 30, 2009 1:46 PM
Stewart Fulbright points out the crew positions on his model of a B-25 bomber similar to the bomber he trained in during World War II. Fulbright is an original Tuskegee airman and participated in protests against segregation at Freeman Field, Ind.
DURHAM -- Dr. Stewart Fulbright never dropped a bomb on an enemy position.
He never shot down members of the German Luftwaffe in the skies over Europe.
This Tuskegee airman's battles took place on American soil.
So even though he never saw action in World War II like those members of the 332nd Fighter Group who earned acclaim for the 1,500 missions they flew and the 100-plus aircraft they knocked out of combat, the 89-year-old will be among those on hand Saturday evening at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base telling stories about overcoming odds -- about being black in what was a white man's military.
For Fulbright, the road to Tuskegee began in a classroom.
The Missouri native had earned a college degree and a job as a teacher when World War II broke out.
"I found out that it was possible for African Americans to start flying. Prior to that, there had been none in the Army Air Corps," he said. "So I volunteered to go in for pilot training. And after I sent in the application, I was asked to go to an Army base in Missouri called Camp Crowder."
There was only one problem: His weight, which was just under the minimum 125 pounds required of aviators.
"I didn't weigh quite 125 pounds .... so I had eaten a bunch of bananas on the bus going from my home to Camp Crowder," Fulbright said.
He hoped a stomach full of fruit would add just enough weight to make him eligible to fly, but when he arrived at the base, he was told the weigh-in would not happen until late afternoon.
"We would take the written exam, eat breakfast and lunch and the last thing we would do was the physical," he said. "But it created a problem because I was afraid to go the bathroom. I didn't want to lose an ounce."
Fulbright would pass the written exam and after weighing in at "exactly 125 pounds," was one of only two from the group of 22 who showed up that day at Camp Crowder to make the cut.
Weeks later, Fulbright was asked to report to Jefferson Barracks, Mo., for training where another challenge was waiting.
"Somehow, they had gotten my name mixed up with the white cadets," he said. "So they put me in a steam-heated barracks with some black soldiers."
But Fulbright wasn't a soldier.
He was an aviation cadet who didn't belong, a fact his commanding officer made clear when he honorably discharged the young man a week after his arrival.
"They had finally discovered I was a black man training with all the white guys," Fulbright said.
So he made his way back home, to the career as a teacher he had left behind, until a few weeks later when his country again came calling.
"They finally got it straight and sent me a ticket to go to Tuskegee," he said.
Prior to Fulbright's arrival at that Alabama airfield, all black aviators were trained as fighter pilots.
But their race was seen as a handicap. Even when members of the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron were deemed combat-ready and transported to Casablanca, Morocco, shortly after Fulbright's arrival to Tuskegee to participate in the North African campaign, fliers and ground crew alike were largely isolated by the racial segregation practices of the white 33rd Fighter Group and its commander Col. William W. Momyer.
The 99th's first combat mission was to attack the small, strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. For its performance in that mission, the squadron moved to Sicily and received a Disting-uished Unit Citation for its performance in combat.
Momyer, however, told members of the U.S. media the 99th was a failure and its pilots "cowardly."
In response, the House Armed Services Committee convened a hearing to determine whether the "Tuskegee Airmen experiment" should be allowed to continue. At that hearing, Momyer accused the 99th's pilots of being incompetent.
In response to that claim, then-General of the Army Hap Arnold ordered an evaluation of all Mediterranean Theater P-40 units to determine the true merits of the 99th, and the results showed the squadron to be at least equal to other units operating the aircraft.
Shortly after the hearing, three new squadrons from Tuskegee left for Africa, and several months later, the four squadrons were combined to form the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.
Meanwhile, back at Tuskegee, Fulbright and 54 others began training on twin-engine planes.
Some were to become bomber pilots, and after graduation, the 31 members of his unit who made the cut were sent to Mather Field, Calif.
After graduating from transition school at Mather where they learned to fly the B-25, the bomb group-in-training was sent to Selfridge Field, Mich., then to Godman Field, Ky.
"The white guys that we learned how to fly the bombers with, after a couple of months, they were being sent overseas to fly and fight in the B-25," Fulbright said. "Meanwhile, we went from one training program into another and another and eventually, they started filling out our crews."
Each B-25 crew needed six men -- a pilot, co-pilot, engineer gunner, radio gunner, navigator bombardier and tail gunner.
"And as more and more (black) men were trained in the various positions, they joined our outfit, and we had full crews, and it was called the 477th Bomb Group," Fulbright said. "But even after we were fully staffed with six-man crews -- there were 64 crews all together -- we would still be sent to training and training and never overseas. There were several problems, all basically racial. You see, the fighter pilots, they eventually had enough pilots to form four squadrons ... a fighter group. They began to build a great reputation. ... Despite that, with the Bomb Group, there was never any intention of sending a black bomb group overseas. It had only been set up to appease black newspapers that had been writing editorials about, 'Our fighter pilots are doing so well, how come we can't have bomber pilots?'"
Members of the bomb group were told they were going to get their chance to fight overseas. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen's storied 332nd Fighter Group was coming back to the U.S. to get the group combat-ready, they were told.
So Fulbright and his peers, finally feeling as though they were going to join the fight, began training for the low-altitude missions that would be waiting in the South Pacific war theater.
"A pilot in a B-25 had to control six .50-caliber mach-ine guns. So on this final run, we would still be flying close formation right on the deck. We had to turn on the gun switches for the six guns, fire the guns ... then we had to hit the button to open the bomb bay doors and on command, we had to drop the practice bombs that we had. We had to close the bomb bay doors, keep firing the machine guns, cut them all off and leave the target," Fulbright said. "It was the most fatiguing and stressful thing I had ever done in my life, but after a few days of doing that, it became second nature. We knew that was the type of stuff we were going to be doing in the South Pacific."
With years of training now finally complete and a deployment date for the unit set, Fulbright and his comrades were given two weeks of leave, "with the idea that after we returned to the base, we would be going to war."
"But they dropped the first Atomic Bomb the first week of our leave," he said. "Then a few days later, the next one was dropped. So when we got back from our so-called final leave, the war was over. The Bomb Group never saw combat."
Fulbright never got to fly his B-25 over Europe, but like other original members of the Tuskegee Airmen, he, too, tasted victory.
It was April 6, 1945, in Freeman Field, Ind.
The 477th had been moved there from Godman Field because the Kentucky base was seen as inadequate for bomber training.
At first, Fulbright was happy to leave Godman.
"Godman Field was right across from Fort Knox. If you went over to Fort Knox to go to a movie, there was segregated seating. Blacks had to sit in the back of the theater," he said. "But white German prisoners could sit down front. Now that made us mad. German prisoners were treated better than black soldiers."
So initially, he welcomed the change of setting -- that is, until the day the majority of the men in his unit were arrested there.
"At Freeman Field they had two officers' clubs. For us, they had a fairly large frame building that had big circulating heater stove in it and several card tables. The white officer's club was a large brick building, steam-heated. It had all the fun, games and equipment that you could expect anywhere," he said. "So one night, we decided we were going to go inside that club. We had a convoy of cars. Everybody who had a car had it full of black officers. And we decided to go to force our way in, if necessary, to that white officer's club."
Base officials, though, had been "tipped off."
"When we got there, they had all the white officers who were there leave and closed down the club," Fulbright said, adding many black officers were arrested.
"A couple of days later, they called all of the black officers into the office of the deputy base commander and gave us ... papers that listed instructors and trainees. Every white officer was listed as an instructor and every black officer was a trainee -- even black guys who had fought with the 99th overseas and had come back and joined our group," Fulbright said. "They showed us this paper and at the bottom of it said, 'I have read and understand the division ... listed above.' Practically all of us refused to sign it. We said we could read it but we can't understand it."
Several of the pilots, including Fulbright, were not arrested, but 105 others were and were sent back to Godman Field.
"Those of us who were pilots ... the reason for our not being arrested is that (the white commanding officer) wanted to keep the reputation of so many flight hours, but most of us didn't fly during that period. I had a lot of 'dental work' done and the other guys would come up with any excuses they could for not flying," Fulbright said. "Because of the publicity ... that, plus the record of the Tuskegee Airmen and some other Army groups of black soldiers, it is said that that is what really led President Truman to issue the order desegregating the Armed Services."
Even though those members of the 477th never got the chance to fight for their country, they remained committed to fight for each other.
"Those persons in Con-gress and in the Army Air Corps higher echelon, they didn't realize that with their opposition and the difficulties that they set up for all of us, it would backfire. All of the guys that I knew came out of it determined," Fulbright said. "All we wanted to do was fly and fight. Turns out we had to fight to fly and fight."
So he will gladly show up at Seymour Johnson this weekend to pay tribute to those comrades who have passed and to tell stories about how a group of 994 men changed the face of the U.S. military.
"At the time all this was happening, we were only consumed with one thing: Having fun and learning how to fly airplanes. But we had to fight all the discrimination and prejudice that was out there, too," Fulbright said. "And what happened was, it made all of us stronger. It made us believe that we could do anything we wanted to if we really applied ourselves. It really makes me feel great to have been a part of a group like that. There were 994 young black guys who completed cadet training at Tuskegee, and I am certainly happy to have been in that group."