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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.

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One day around Christmas of 1944, weather forced the bombers we were escorting to land at our base.  During the two days the bomber crews stayed with us, one of the “duties as assigned” I was performing was censoring the enlisted men’s mail.  I came across one letter I must have read 50 times.  It read in part, “Dearest,…The most sentimental time of the year is approaching.  It makes my heart bleed to know that I’ll not be with you at Christmas.  May God speed the end of this war…[I]t’s bad enough I’m not on my own base.  I’m stranded at a nigger base, eating nigger food and sleeping in a nigger bed.”  The return address indicated the letter was from a Sergeant Schwartz.

The next day, as the crews began to assemble for takeoff, I located Schwartz when he was away from the rest of his crew.  “Sergeant Schwartz,” I said, “after all, it wasn’t so bad sleeping in nigger beds and eating nigger food, especially when we protect you in flight.  I’ll see you up there.”  I turned and walked away without bothering to see the expression on his face.

Despite such episodes I still considered myself lucky: after flying dozens of missions, I remained physically unscathed.  My most serious injury, in fact, was a rather inglorious one: I was hit by a Jeep while sleeping in my tent—the result of the squadron cook’s attempt to teach himself to drive.

There were close calls, though.  One occurred while I was escorting bombers on a secret mission.  I was at 18,000 feet when a feeling came over me.  This was the best day of my life.  Everything was beautiful.  I could hear music coming from nowhere.  I had an urge to roll back the canopy, climb out on the cowling, and direct all 63 airplanes as though they were an orchestra.

Then, about five minutes later, it seemed as though someone had lowered a gray mosquito net over my eyes.  I felt that I was going to be sick; I grew careless and didn’t give a damn about maintaining my position in the formation.  I desperately wanted to sleep.  The plane veered off in a descending right turn.  My vision began clearing as I approached lower altitude, but the sick feeling remained.

I learned later that I was suffering from hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen.  Either my oxygen supply had sprung a leak or the regulator had malfunctioned.  At the moment, though, my only thought was to try to land safely.

The nearest landmark was the island of Vis, off the coast of Yugoslavia, which was known to have been occupied by the Germans.  After I landed, Yugoslavian soldiers from the anti-communist Chetnik faction found me and took me to a shepherds’ hut.  Although I had been told that American pilots would be safe on Vis, I had my doubts.

The next morning a crowd of about 50 old men, women, and children had gathered around the hut.  Word had traveled fast.  I spotted a woman in the crowd holding a baby, and when I reached toward it the baby took hold of one of my fingers.  The woman offered me her child as though she were handing it to some strange creature.  I held the baby for a few seconds, then gave it back to the woman.  As a soft murmur spread through the crowd, I knew I was safe.

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.

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