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Tuskegee cadets gather at a formal assembly. The first graduating class is seated in the front row. (NASM)

The Flight of the Bumblebee

World War II's black pilots had two war to fight.

The elevator doors opened and there stood Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, looking much as he had when I was an impressionable seven-year-old.  He went into his act immediately.  Strolling up and down the lobby with one eye on a small audience, he said in a loud voice, “Is this any way to treat a returning hero?  He should be out on the town.  Give him the keys to the city.”  He rummaged through his pockets.  “Here—here are the keys to my car.  Return the car whenever you wish, tomorrow or whenever you’re finished.  It’s right outside, around the corner.”

I felt like two cents, being put on display like this, and could have hidden in the pile of the carpet.  But I thanked him and set out to identify the car.  I found it quickly enough: a big black Cadillac with a ticket on the windshield parked beside the fire hydrant.  I removed the parking ticket, got in, turned the ignition—and saw that the gas gauge registered empty.  The old fox’s plot included me, my gasoline ration card—which he didn’t know I lacked—and a full tank.  I drove the car around the block, parked it in the space where I had found it, replaced the ticket, and returned to the hotel to give Julian the keys.  He was still holding forth in the lobby, and he berated me in the presence of the people there, telling me that I didn’t know how to accept things graciously.  Then, after he lost his audience, he invited me to come to his house for breakfast the next morning.

The Black Eagle appeared at his door dressed in a satin smoking jacket and wearing the ever-present monocle.  But I could have cried when I entered his home.  There was no furniture in the living room, and nothing but a big round oak table in the dining room.  The kitchen held only a table and chair.

I couldn’t smell any food cooking.  (Had he expected me to bring it?)  I backed out of the invitation politely, explaining that I had other appointments.  I really pitied Julian.  He was living in another world, still playing the part of a king in a cold, empty house.

That was the last time I saw Julian in person.  However, he continued to make himself conspicuous.  Years later he appeared on the Dave Garroway and David Frost TV shows.  In 1977 the Washington Post published an article listing the names of several distinguished foreigners—including one U.S. citizen—caught shoplifting in London’s major department stores.  “Last summer’s bag included the famous ‘Col.’ Herbert [sic] Fauntleroy Julian,” the article read.  “The Black Eagle, as he was known for his alleged flying exploits half a century ago, tried to soar out of Selfridge’s with [£1,500] worth of electronics under his arm.  Since the ‘colonel’ admits to being 78, his exploit drew reluctant admiration even from [the] security chief….”

What was that I’d said about a role model?  Well, we all make mistakes.

Following my leave—and happy to leave some parts of it behind me—I reported back to Tuskegee Army Air Field in October 1943, where my new assignment was to instruct a group of five aviation cadets.  On his last dual instruction, one cadet froze at the controls while I was teaching him to recover from spins in an AT-6.  Deciding that combat might be a little safer, I requested permission to join the 332nd Fighter Group.  Formed of four black squadrons, including the original 99th, the 332nd was headed for combat under Colonel Davis’ leadership.

After a month of sailing aboard a Liberty Ship in early 1944 we arrived at Taranto, Italy.  We occupied bases at Salerno and Naples and eventually set up a base in Ramitelli, on the east coast.  The airplanes we flew—P-40s, P-39s, and P-47s—were hand-me-downs, but our linemen did an excellent job of keeping them airworthy.  The best planes were yet to come.

I can’t find enough adjectives to describe my feelings about the P-51.  Good response to controls, stable, smooth, powerful, quiet engine, good cockpit visibility, speed, rate of climb, reliability—it was the best fighter aircraft ever built by the United States.  The Mustang was a real sweetheart.  Had it been a woman, I would not have hesitated to marry it after the first time I flew it.

The 332nd was making progress; our victories were on the rise.  By the winter of 1944 we were escorting B-24s and B-17s as they bombed oil refineries, marshaling yards, and munitions factories in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  Our highest score for one day was 13 victories.  At last we were changing public opinion about our abilities as fighter pilots.  Our group never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.

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