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Fighter pilot with 'Tuskegee Airmen' said impossible conditions sharpened black flying crews

Published: Thursday, Feb. 2 2012 7:03 p.m. MST

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III, of the Tuskegee Airmen, speaks at Hill Air Force Base about his experiences, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Retired Lt. Col. James H. Harvey III said he was part of the team that won the first Top Gun fighter competition, in 1949.

But that wasn't widely known because the win was not included in the Air Force almanac for decades — a small part of the discrimination he and his fellow African-American "Tuskegee Airmen" faced as the first black airmen in the U.S. military

"Our team won the event but was never recognized as the winner until April 1995," he said.

Distinctive red paint markings on the airmen's P-51 fighters won them the name the "Red Tails," or "Red Tailed Angels" — names bestowed by the bomber crews the Tuskegee Airmen protected on bombing raids.

The PBS documentary "The Tuskegee Airmen" was released in 1995, and the George Lucas-produced movie "Red Tails," is new in theaters.

Harvey, now 88, spoke to a large, enthusiastic crowd at the Hill Aerospace Museum at Hill Air Force Base on Thursday. He'll speak here again at 1 p.m. Saturday.

He said his telling and retelling of the Tuskegee Airmen's experience may make him sound bitter about the prejudices of the past. But he insists he's giving a factual account so the history will not be forgotten, and to stand in contrast with the fully integrated military of today.

"We've come a long way. There is still a lot to do, but we've come a long way," he said.

Harvey cited an infamous 1925 Army War College report titled "The Use of Negro Man Power in War" that characterized blacks as incapable of being dependable technicians and fighters. There were no black pilots in the military as war in Europe was brewing in early 1941.

He said pressure from the Negro press and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt to initiate the formation of an all African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Ala., also in 1941. They became the Army Air Corps' 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group.

"It was designed to fail," Harvey said, with timelines for airfield construction and expectations of cadets designed to prove, in a racially charged environment, that blacks were not up to the task of flying in battle.

"Tuskegee, Alabama, was the worst place in the country" for blacks at the time, he said. "Ninety percent of the Army's commanders were from the South, reinforcing the racial stereotypes." But impossible expectations produced pilots that were better than their white counterparts because of unrealistically rigorous training, Harvey said.

That attitude showed during a question-and-answer session when Harvey was asked whether he had a difficult time transitioning to jet aircraft after World War II. "No problem whatsoever. Remember, I'm from Tuskegee."

Harvey's orders to ship out were put on hold before he reached Europe, but he would fly 180 missions in Korea.

Retired Col. Jack Tueller, now 92, lives in Layton and said he trained five Tuskegee Airmen after they finished their basic flight training. He said they flew as well as anyone he trained and worked just as hard. Tueller arrived at the air museum with his children and grandchildren unaware a Tuskegee Airman was there. But Harvey's remarks and interviews afterward quickly commanded his full attention.

Harvey said he believes the Tuskegee Airmen played very important roles in civil rights actions that would become the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s — though mostly as individuals, because publicity about the black flying groups was kept at a minimum. "Many people marching in the 1960s never even knew about us," he said.

As for the new movie about the airmen, "I've seen it twice," Harvey said. "It's a very good movie."

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