The Flight of the Bumblebee
World War II's black pilots had two war to fight.
- By Louis R. Purnell
- Air & Space magazine, November 1989
(Page 7 of 7)
One other episode is still particularly vivid to me. We were on a strafing mission over Yugoslavia when we spotted a long convoy of German trucks. Swooping down to treetop level and below, we blasted them right and left. Some returned fire with their machine guns.
After returning to the base, I checked the aircraft—a brand new P-51 on its maiden combat mission—for bullet holes. Hanging over the edge of the airscoop beneath the plane was a strange object—a black-brownish glob, wet in some spots. I poke at it with a stick and it fell to the ground. A fleshy glob. Then it dawned on me: this was part of a man.
My first thought was Better he than I. And then I began to think seriously about what had happened. At their point of convergence, bullets from a P-51’s six 50-caliber guns have a disintegrating rather than penetrating effect. Debris flies in all directions. Eighty minutes ago that man was alive, healthy, and whole. His parents had raised him just as mine had raised me. He had nothing against me personally, and I had nothing against him, but since our countries were at war, killing was legal. When called to arms, one must defend his country.
But it all seemed so futile: nations trying to force their forms of government and ways of living on other nations, all the while knowing that wars never really settle anything. The result is men without fathers and fathers without sons.
I was also well aware that had it not been for the war, I would never have been able to fly. The war dramatically improved the situation for black aviators. Afterwards, blacks became commercial pilots. In Korea and Vietnam the Air Force was integrated. Benjamin Davis and other blacks became generals. Today we have black astronauts.
I think they were all accepted a little more readily because of what the pilots of the 99th squadron had gone through. It was just another rung on the ladder we were trying to climb to disprove that old theory of black inferiority. Per aspera ad astra, as the saying goes—to the stars through difficulties.