Don't Let These Old Soldiers Just Fade Away

General Douglas Mc Arthur once said to Congress, "...old soldiers never die, they just fade away." As was often the case, the General was quite correct. Too often our society revels in the accomplishments of its great men while events are happening, only to then lose sight of those accomplishments as time marches on. But, how does our society remember "old soldiers" whose accomplishments went almost un-noticed when they were happening?

How will we remember men like Lt. Col. Charles "Chuck" Dryden who died this past Tuesday? Dryden was one of the original members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and later the 332nd Fighter Group, known to all of us now as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Colonel Dryden was far from alone. He was only one of about 1,000 men who would eventually train at the Tuskegee Army Flying School for a mission few believed they were capable of.

Men of high-rank, such as 8th Air Force commander "Hap" Arnold, believed these black flyers were incapable of being fighter pilots. Roosevelt himself was dubious of the program to train black pilots, until pressure from his wife, Eleanor, prompted him to open the program to them. On April 19, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee and met Charles "Chief" Anderson, the head of the program.  Mrs. Roosevelt asked Anderson, "Can Negroes really fly airplanes?" to which he replied: "Certainly we can; as a matter of fact, would you like to take an airplane ride?" Over the objections of her Secret Service agents, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted. Upon landing, Mrs. Roosevelt turned to the Chief and said, "I guess Negroes can fly." Not long after Mrs. Roosevelt's return to Washington, it was announced that the first Negro Air Corps pilots would be trained at Tuskegee Institute.

After completing their training, the Tuskegee pilots set out across the Atlantic to face the United State's enemies abroad; all the while facing scorn and even contempt from many inside the same United States they risked their lives to support. Yet, it was against this heartbreaking backdrop that the Tuskegee Airmen took on the demanding and un-enviable task of escorting U.S. bombers on their missions over Axis controlled territory.

Up to that point, U.S. bomber crews had been pounded relentlessly by German ground fire and fighters. Thousands had been killed or maimed while struggling to drop bombs that they hoped would ground the German war machine to a halt. Their greatest problem remained that if the losses to the bomber crews could not be reduced, the raids would have to be scaled back; resulting in the war dragging further on and on.

So it was on March 24, 1945 when white U.S. bomber crews took off for a raid against a tank assembly plant in Germany, entrusting their lives to a group of men who would not have been able to sit next to them in a cafeteria back in the U.S. It was to be the longest escort of the war, and all seemed well during most of the 800-mile trip. Then, suddenly and without warning, a swarm of German fighters, each equipped with four 30mm guns and speeds significantly greater than the Tuskegee force's P-51 Mustangs, shot out of the clouds heading directly for the bombers.

The Tuskegee Airmen had been tested before, but this was perilous. Not only were these enemy pilots veteran Luftwaffe airmen, some of the best in the world, but they also manned the first jets to ever be used in aerial combat, the infamous ME-262's, "a superb bomber interceptor, with a speed advantage so great, and armament so powerful, that it could easily intercept and destroy allied heavy bombers, while practically ignoring their swarms of piston-engined escort fighters, and the bombers' own gun turrets."

Some of the bomber pilots must have started making their peace with God around this time. A German force of ME-262's would have been a lethal force, even for seasoned white fighter pilots with more experience and training. Perhaps some even thought the men from Tuskegee might turn and run.

Instead, what happened was one of the most ferocious air battles of the war. A battle that saw at least 3 ME-262's go down, with the Tuskegee men reporting 3 more probable kills in addition to the three confirmed, and 2 more damaged before the "master race" decided to make a run for it.

Before the men from Tuskegee would return home to segregated drinking fountains and seats in the back of the bus, they would win 744 Air Medals, 130 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 1 Silver Star; they would produce an ace, Lee Archer, and they would shoot down 108 enemy aircraft. All the while, saving the lives of thousands of American pilots.

In 1948, President Harry Truman would de-segregate the Armed Forces; based, at least in part, on the conduct of this extraordinary group of men. Men who would prove what could be accomplished when we judge people, as Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed "not by the color of their skin...but by the content of their character."
General Douglas Mc Arthur once said to Congress, "...old soldiers never die, they just fade away." As was often the case, the General was quite correct. Too often our society revels in the accomplishments of its great men while events are happening, only to then lose sight of those accomplishments as time marches on. But, how does our society remember "old soldiers" whose accomplishments went almost un-noticed when they were happening?

How will we remember men like Lt. Col. Charles "Chuck" Dryden who died this past Tuesday? Dryden was one of the original members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and later the 332nd Fighter Group, known to all of us now as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Colonel Dryden was far from alone. He was only one of about 1,000 men who would eventually train at the Tuskegee Army Flying School for a mission few believed they were capable of.

Men of high-rank, such as 8th Air Force commander "Hap" Arnold, believed these black flyers were incapable of being fighter pilots. Roosevelt himself was dubious of the program to train black pilots, until pressure from his wife, Eleanor, prompted him to open the program to them. On April 19, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee and met Charles "Chief" Anderson, the head of the program.  Mrs. Roosevelt asked Anderson, "Can Negroes really fly airplanes?" to which he replied: "Certainly we can; as a matter of fact, would you like to take an airplane ride?" Over the objections of her Secret Service agents, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted. Upon landing, Mrs. Roosevelt turned to the Chief and said, "I guess Negroes can fly." Not long after Mrs. Roosevelt's return to Washington, it was announced that the first Negro Air Corps pilots would be trained at Tuskegee Institute.

After completing their training, the Tuskegee pilots set out across the Atlantic to face the United State's enemies abroad; all the while facing scorn and even contempt from many inside the same United States they risked their lives to support. Yet, it was against this heartbreaking backdrop that the Tuskegee Airmen took on the demanding and un-enviable task of escorting U.S. bombers on their missions over Axis controlled territory.

Up to that point, U.S. bomber crews had been pounded relentlessly by German ground fire and fighters. Thousands had been killed or maimed while struggling to drop bombs that they hoped would ground the German war machine to a halt. Their greatest problem remained that if the losses to the bomber crews could not be reduced, the raids would have to be scaled back; resulting in the war dragging further on and on.

So it was on March 24, 1945 when white U.S. bomber crews took off for a raid against a tank assembly plant in Germany, entrusting their lives to a group of men who would not have been able to sit next to them in a cafeteria back in the U.S. It was to be the longest escort of the war, and all seemed well during most of the 800-mile trip. Then, suddenly and without warning, a swarm of German fighters, each equipped with four 30mm guns and speeds significantly greater than the Tuskegee force's P-51 Mustangs, shot out of the clouds heading directly for the bombers.

The Tuskegee Airmen had been tested before, but this was perilous. Not only were these enemy pilots veteran Luftwaffe airmen, some of the best in the world, but they also manned the first jets to ever be used in aerial combat, the infamous ME-262's, "a superb bomber interceptor, with a speed advantage so great, and armament so powerful, that it could easily intercept and destroy allied heavy bombers, while practically ignoring their swarms of piston-engined escort fighters, and the bombers' own gun turrets."

Some of the bomber pilots must have started making their peace with God around this time. A German force of ME-262's would have been a lethal force, even for seasoned white fighter pilots with more experience and training. Perhaps some even thought the men from Tuskegee might turn and run.

Instead, what happened was one of the most ferocious air battles of the war. A battle that saw at least 3 ME-262's go down, with the Tuskegee men reporting 3 more probable kills in addition to the three confirmed, and 2 more damaged before the "master race" decided to make a run for it.

Before the men from Tuskegee would return home to segregated drinking fountains and seats in the back of the bus, they would win 744 Air Medals, 130 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 1 Silver Star; they would produce an ace, Lee Archer, and they would shoot down 108 enemy aircraft. All the while, saving the lives of thousands of American pilots.

In 1948, President Harry Truman would de-segregate the Armed Forces; based, at least in part, on the conduct of this extraordinary group of men. Men who would prove what could be accomplished when we judge people, as Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed "not by the color of their skin...but by the content of their character."