By mayoral proclamation, yesterday was Tuskegee Airmen Day in Philadelphia. One hundred of the famed black aviators came from up and down the East Coast and as far west as Detroit to a tent at Northeast Philadelphia Airport where they heard speeches and traded war stories about the history they fought to make 50 years ago when the Army reluctantly gave them a shot at flying for their country.
The ceremony was tied to the golden anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen's first combat victory, when Lt. Charles B. Hall shot down a German fighter plane in a dogfight over Sicily. Its organizers said that even though that historic feat happened in 1943, yesterday's event was the first official recognition of the airmen's contributions by a governmental body in this country.
"Fifty years ago we said, 'America, we love you,' and today we say the same thing," retired Air Force Maj. Bertram Levy, head of the airmen's Philadelphia chapter, told the audience of several hundred. "We're very pleased to see you finally got the message."
The Lonely Eagles started filing in by mid-morning. While "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "A String of Pearls" crackled over loudspeakers, they matched faded photographs of faces framed by scarves, goggles and cotton helmets with the fuller ones now arriving and fringed with gray and white.
Posters trumpeted their record: From 1942 to 1946, 992 men graduated from the advanced flying school at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Four hundred of those pilots flew in combat missions. Sixty-six never returned. They downed 111 enemy planes in the air and crippled 150 on the ground. They sunk one destroyer with machine fire. They knocked out 58 enemy buildings and factories and sunk 16 barges and boats. They accompanied bombers on more than 200 missions and never lost one of their charges.
For their efforts, they were awarded one Legion of Merit award, one Silver Star, 8 Purple Hearts, 8 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 95 Bronze Stars, 14 Air Medal Clusters.
Luther "Smitty" Smith had a hand in 113 of those missions and many awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and a prisoner-of-war medal. He earned the latter for seven months of captivity in Austria. His ordeal began Friday the 13th in October 1944. Smith doesn't remember being hit; only coming to in the air, his parachute somehow opened and his P-51 Mustang in flames below him, spiraling toward Yugoslavia.
He also remembers one conversation in particular. He was recovering in a Luftwaffe hospital with an SS major at his bedside. The conversation was in German, which Smith had picked up.
"They give medals for killing people, but you are stupid," the German said. "They lynched your people, yet you volunteered to fight for a country that lynches you."
Smith told him he didn't understand what he had said. That bought him a day to think about his answer. The next day, they resumed the conversation.
"Let me tell you, there is a difference between you and me," Smith recalls saying. "I want the opportunity to fly for my country because I'm looking for something better."
Smith was 13 when he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. He kept it to
himself. In high school he took extra courses in math and science, knowing if opportunity presented itself, he would be prepared.
In March 1941, the first group of black pilot-trainees reported for duty. Smith, now a 72-year-old retired engineer from Villanova, had to battle Americans before he had a shot at the Germans. People like the newsstand clerk in an Alabama train station who forbade him to drink from a public water fountain.
George C. Bolden had passed the test and was on his way by train to Tuskegee, a Pittsburgh boy from an integrated neighborhood, the son of two Tuskegee graduates. Bolden, 67 and a retired Cherry Hill engineer, remembers having his eyes opened in Washington, where blacks were made to sit in the first rail car, where the smoke belched and coal dust coated them.
Nathaniel Stewart, who grew up one of so few black families in Manayunk that he rarely felt the sting of segregation, remembers the white flight instructor at Tuskegee, a captain from Mississippi, whose plane crashed in training.
At the hospital he needed a transfusion and only "black blood" was available. His wife said she would rather let him die, says Stewart, 70, a retired city pharmacist from Mount Airy. The captain was flown to Maxwell Air Force Base to get "white blood."
Back then there was enormous joy and honor as well. Joe Oliver remembers the grand parades to and from mess hall, a legion of black officers-in- training singing their prayers before the local girls would wait on them.
"We were tops," recalls Oliver.
Oliver didn't have to enlist. By working at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and being the oldest male in his household, he had two excuses for not serving.
But he had always wanted to fly.
"I'd never even been up in airplane," he said, but he took the test at the customs house and scored a train ticket to Alabama. The washout rate was great - at least half the men did not graduate flying school. Joe Oliver never did; he became a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen. Being one of them was that important. To this day, his association with the airmen remains the pride of his life.
"This is something I think about 24 hours a day," said the retired supply foreman at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. "Each one of us can tell you a different story. You lay in bed and think about it - that you were part of something that had never been done in this country."