MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
Riding the crest of the historic opening of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site on Oct. 10, four of the original Airmen spoke to hundreds of Air Force officers at Squadron Officer School here Oct. 16.
In their speeches and subsequent panel discussions, the former fighter pilots reflected on leadership, life experiences and the role they played in the transition out of a segregated military and nation.
The speakers were retired Cols. Charles McGee and Herbert Carter, and Lt. Cols. Lee Archer and William Holloman, all of whom flew for the four squadrons that made up the 332nd Fighter Group. The event was the capstone of leadership training for the captains in attendance, with graduation the following morning.
"I want to paint a picture of what the Tuskegee Experience was all about," Mr. McGee told the class.
Beginning with the 1920s, Mr. McGee recounted the effects of an Army War College study on "Negroes" that excluded blacks from flying based on their perceived deficiencies, a conclusion erroneously derived from flawed "scientific" surveys. Mr. McGee told of a lawsuit pressuring the military to go back on its prohibition and the follow-on "experiment," directing the establishment of an all-black flying squadron.
"[The experiment] certainly dispelled the myths and biases, generalizations, and racism that were behind Army policy, which said the Negro American didn't have the intellect to fly, the moral fiber to fight and the integrity to lead," he said. The success of the experimental squadron, which began in 1941, "led to the integration of our armed forces."
All those who played a part in the experiment, numbering in the thousands over the course of the next several years, became known as "Tuskegee Airmen."
Speaking of his time training to be an officer and pilot, Mr. Carter, one of the inaugural members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the unit implemented at the beginning of the experiment, said the training was already "taxing, but was even more so in the atmosphere of vicious racism."
How did they succeed under these conditions?
"We were a team; that's what made our success," Mr. Holloman said. "It took the teamwork of all the people in our unit."
This teamwork, according to the Airmen, formed insoluble bonds among everyone who took part in the experiment.
"Every Christmas, I still write the pilot who taught me to fly," Mr. Archer told the audience, emphasizing the camaraderie among his fellow Tuskegee Airmen and eventually throughout the Air Force.
"I spent 29 years in the military," he told the audience of captains. "You work for the greatest organization. We hand it to you; carry it well."
Asked about their favorite part of flying, the Airmen said they especially enjoyed taking off, landing and night flying.
"My wife was mad when on a beautiful night with a full moon, I would say, 'Nice night for flying,'" Mr. McGee said. Watching the sun set and the emergence of the night sky "makes you realize that we as human beings are one small speck in this mighty, grand universe."
After the seminar, the Tuskegee Airmen made time to visit with the scores of student officers from Squadron Officer School, autographing posters and model airplanes, and snapping photos.
"This is historic," said Capt. Roslynn Rayford, a student from the 507th Air Refueling Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
"It's a privilege and an honor that we won't have in future years," Captain Rayford added as she stood in line waiting for an autograph. "This is a grand opportunity Squadron Officer School has provided."
Also waiting for the signature of one of the Tuskegee Airmen was Capt. Tony Weedn, another student from Oklahoma. He is stationed as an instructor pilot at Vance Air Force Base.
Captain Weedn trained at the 99th Flying Training Squadron, which dates back to early 1941 when it was constituted as a "pursuit squadron" in Tuskegee, Ala., the first all-black unit in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
"We had pictures of the Tuskegee Airmen all over the place, but we never got to meet them," he said of his time at Randolph Air Force Base, where the squadron is now stationed. The captain said he was surprised to learn he would finally meet some of these historic Airmen. "I think it's neat that they take time from their families and their lives to visit with us."
"Our Air Force has changed a lot, and they're the reason behind that change," he said. "They dealt with racism and prejudice and now they can impart their knowledge and wisdom on us so it doesn't happen in the future. I think it's because of them that we don't have a problem with racism any longer in our military."