Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pittsburgh Tuskegee Airmen Featured in Education and Media Events

Pittsburgh area Tuskegee Airmen and local historians were featured in two significant events this week.

Penn Hills School District Presents . . . The Tuskegee Airmen

Historians Regis Bobonis Sr. and John
Ford discuss the Tuskegee Airmen
experience at the Penn Hills videoconference. 
Read a Post-Gazette article about the event. 
Photo: Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette.
Penn Hills School District hosted a national educational videoconference with several Tuskegee Airmen, family members, and noted historians of the Tuskegee experience.  Nine schools from around the country directly participated in the conference and over 122 other schools were registered to view the proceedings.

The Tuskegee Airmen and panelists discussed a range of topics, including military enlistment, training, and their treatment under segregation, which was far worse in America than in Europe, and the significance of the recent George Lucas film, Red Tails.

Noted local participants included Wendell Freeland (a Tuskegee bombardier), Timothy McCray (Tuskegee Airmen support crew), Regis Bobonis Sr. (historian with the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society) and John Ford (historian with the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum).

More information about the Penn Hills School District’s Tuskegee Airmen videoconference can be found on its website.

Tuskegee Airmen on the Radio  

Tuskegee Airmen mutiny at Freeman Field. 
Photo: Library of Congress
Another local event dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen experience was an interview with airmen Ed Harris, Wendell Freeland, and historian Al Monroe by Essential Pittsburgh, a local public radio talk program hosted by Paul Guggenheimer.  The show aired at noon and again at 8 pm on Thursday, May 1, 2012.

Lt. Col. Ed Harris grew up in the Hill District and was trained to fly at Tuskegee.  He would eventually fly 150 missions in bombers, extending into the Korean War.

During the hour-long program Mr. Freeland explained his role in helping to de-segregate the armed forces.  He was one of 162 Army Air Corps officers who defied orders and were arrested for entering a whites only officers’ club in Freeman Field, Indiana.  This and other such incidents helped prompt President Truman’s historic reconsideration of military segregation.

Also featured on the show was Captain Al Monroe (USAF ret.), who heads efforts to complete the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial in Sewickley, PA.  Mr. Monroe spoke of the bravery and sacrifice of all of the Tuskegee Airmen, especially the several airmen who came from the Greater Pittsburgh region.   

The program can be heard in its entirety on the show’s webpage at Essential Public Radio (90.5 FM).   

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Now Showing: Fly Boys

During Black History Month, don't miss WQED's own award-winning documentary about our own Black fighter pilots and maintenance crews who were trained in Tuskegee, Alabama during WWII.

Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania's Tuskegee Airmen
Wednesday, February 8 -- 3:00pm
13.3 - WQED: The Neighborhood Channel
duration:60 min
details: [CC] [STEREO]

With an appearance by Regis Bobonis, Sr., lead researcher on the documentary and Project Executive of the Tuskegee Airmen of Pittsburgh Oral History Project.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dr. Todd DePastino Joins Pittsburgh Tuskegee Airmen Project

Todd DePastino, acclaimed Pittsburgh area WW II historian and author, has joined efforts with The Tuskegee Airmen of Greater Pittsburgh Oral History Project—an innovative, multimedia educational initiative developed by The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh, Inc. and The Social Voice Project®.

Dr. Pastino is the author of Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton), which won the 2009 Anne M. Sperber Prize for the best biography of a major media figure and was a 2009 Eisner Award nominee.  He is general editor of Fantagraphics Books’ complete Mauldin series, which so far includes the acclaimed Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (2008) and Willie& Joe: Back Home (2011). He is currently collaborating with Wind and Stars Production Group to write and co-produce a documentary film on Bill Mauldin to be aired on public television in 2014. 

Previous books include Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (University of Chicago Press, 2003), which won a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and The Road By Jack London (Rutgers University Press, 2006). 

Dr. Depastino earned his Ph.D. in American History from Yale University and teaches at Waynesburg University where in 2008 he won the Lucas-Hathaway Award for Teaching Excellence. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two daughters. 

Todd DePastino is also the founder and executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to sharing veterans’ stories with the public. Over 1,500 people have participated in the Veterans Breakfast Club’s programs and activities over the past two years.

Friday, February 3, 2012

In Memoriam: Kenneth E Whitlock, Sr.

As an officer with the Daniel B. Matthew Historical Society, Ken Whitlock's vision and initial research was crucial towards documenting the history of African Americans from Greater Pittsburgh that served as Tuskegee Airmen.  To date, 87 men and one woman from the region have been identified as having served with the Tuskegee Airmen.  In honor of these citizens, a Tuskegee Airmen Memorial is in the process of being erected in the Sewickley Cemetery.

Historians note that the group Mr. Whitlock helped to identify makes up the largest contingency of Airmen from any specific geographic area.  His scholarship has been instrumental in addressing the ongoing question, Why did so many Tuskegee Airmen hail from the Greater Pittsburgh area?   This year, The Tuskegee Airmen of Pittsburgh Oral History Project, a joint venture between The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh and The Social Voice Project, will seek answers to this question as it interviews the surviving Airmen from the area. 

Mr. Whitlock also authored "Breaking Barriers,"  which detailed the racism he encountered in America after he returned from WW II after serving in the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Whitlock was a member of St. Matthews A.M.E. Zion Church of Sewickley, PA, American Legion Post 450 in Sewickley, and the Senior Mens Club of the Sewickley YMCA.

At age 91, Mr. Whitlock died peacefully on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 in McCandless Twp.  he is survived by his wife Melusena Whitlock, and children Linda Whitlock of MA, Kenneth E. Whitlock, Jr. (Barbara) of MA, and Renee Chargois (Edward) of CA.  He is also survived by his sister Marion Whitlock-Jones of Washington, DC and a niece Cliftine Jones of Washington, DC. He is also survived by a host of other relatives and friends.

A memorial service for Mr. Whitlock will be held this summer.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the "Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Project", PO Box 183, Sewickley, PA 15143.

See also the Post-Gazette.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Col. Edward Harris, Top Gun Life Saver

"Mayday!  Mayday!  I am Silvertone.  My bird just flamed out.  Mayday!"

"I read you Silvertone," answered Captain Edward Harris of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Operations Officer of the 772nd Radar Squadron at the Ground Control Intercept Center in Blue Knob, Pennsylvania. "Do you have glide control of your aircraft?"
"Roger," replied Silvertone." I was out of Otis in Massachusetts headed west when the flame out hit at 40,000 feet ... I'm at 30 and dropping fast. I will never make it in time to Harrisburg International or Johnstown. Any idea where I can set down?" Silvertone asked calmly.

"Affirmative," said Harris. I have you pinpointed right above us at Claysburg. Once you have ground visibility we have vectored you to make a 360 and look for a pattern of necklace lighting in a straight line for over a mile. That's a stretch of Pennsylvania Route 22, now your runway. It's 0230 in the morning and there should be little or no traffic. If you see any motorists and your landing lights are operational, waggle your wings on approach to alert them to pull over and stop.
Silvertone replied, "I am into the turn. I noticed the lights when I broke cloud cover. I am on approach ..."

Meanwhile Harris's staff set in motion the military "plane down" protocols. State police, fire and emergency medical teams were already en route and at the ready to process everything from pilot injury to securing the top secret aircraft; moreover, the Center's customized 18-wheeler flatbed had been dispatched and a megaton military helicopter placed on standby if needed to get the plane and/or wreckage off the roadway before the locals began their morning commute.
After an eternity of waiting, the intense silence of those airmen gathered in the Operations Room was broken in a burst of cheers and applause as Silvertone's deep voice came through loud and clear! "I'm down. It was a smooth roll until I stopped right in the middle of the highway. I can see a caravan of lights headed my way. My thanks to all who got me down safely."

"Affirmative Silvertone," Harris responded. After explaining the decisions behind the oncoming lights he added, "My people will make you comfortable at our facilities. At 1100 hours later today we will all gather in the Center's Operations Room and debrief this morning's mission."
"Affirmative," answered Silvertone.

Promptly at 1100 Silvertone, flanked by two Center staff aides, walked into the Operations Center but stopped dead in his tracks as he made eye contact with Harris. "Eddie ... is that you?"
Harris looked at Silvertone in shocked disbelief. "Chappie ... you're Silvertone?" Harris said in a voice barely above a whisper.

Those gathered in the room looked on in stunned silence as the two African-American Air Force officers wrapped themselves in a huge bear hug, greeting one another with broad smiles and pats on the back. The onlookers could never have imagined that not only were they witnessing an elegant happenstance in the American Black experience, but they had just helped save the life of then Lt. Colonel Daniel "Chappie" James, the man who went on to excel in every Command level duty assignment, including NORRAD. The man would become the first Black General to be named Commander in Chief of the United States Air Force!
And what made this reunion all the more improbable was that both men were "Top Gun" graduates of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the Black pilot training program at Tuskegee, Alabama. Further, during the Korean War, their Captain Harris flew as First Lieutenant Daniel James' "Wing Man", flying over 100 combat missions in P51 Mustangs and F80 jet fighters.

The then-Captain Edward Harris was raised in Pittsburgh's Hill District. He was a straight A graduate from Schenley High School with a passion for any subject that pointed him toward a career in aviation.
As long as anyone can remember Ed busied himself on weekends building model airplanes or flying his handmade kites on Morgan Field near his home on Conklin Street.

When Harris learned of the Tuskegee program he enlisted and, due to his high test scores, he was off to Tuskegee, Alabama for training. Over the next 22 years he proved himself to be accomplished as a combat pilot and a respected authority in Air Traffic Control Communications. At the time of the James incident, Harris was the Ground Control Intercept Officer at Blue Knob. He was responsible for control intercept operations covering airports at Greater Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Ohio, Delaware, and Olmstead Air Force Base. Additionally, he was responsible for the proficiency training of 45 pilots, training schedules and check rides.
Incredulously, earlier on the afternoon of July 6, 1956, Harris was the central figure in saving the lives of two National Guard Pilots flying P31s on a cross-country training flight. In an attempt to make a steep climb out of an electrical storm, the planes lost much of their navigational and radio communications; only one radio was barely audible to make a "May Day". The pilot reported they knew they were lost somewhere over the Pittsburgh Tri State area and were dangerously low on fuel.

Again, using his video mapping scope, Harris gave them a 360 check turn and located the flight 90 miles south of Pittsburgh. He quickly ordered them to climb an additional 1,000 feet to get above the daily Pittsburgh flight traffic flow, and then vectored them into the radar and radio reach of the Pittsburgh Control tower, enabling the two planes to land safely with only 11 minutes of fuel remaining.
Lt. Colonel Harris holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, multiple air medals with Oak and Silver Leaf Clusters, the Order of Merit from the South Korean Royal Air Force, and numerous awards, citations, and merit promotions for his on-the-job performance in the service of his country. Harris now lives in quiet retirement in Trenton, New Jersey.

Regis Bobonis, Sr
©All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lt. Col. William Thompson and the First Lady

Lt. Col. William R Thompson
On the morning of March 29, 1941, the campus of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, was buzzing with excitement. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, was making an "official" visit to the Institute. In contrast, Mrs. Roosevelt's trips to or on behalf of human service organizations were usually handled as a matter of routine with little or no fanfare. This one was decidedly different. There was a public announcement of the visit by her office in Washington, D.C. This guaranteed she would arrive accompanied by a full entourage of Secret Service agents and curious news reporters.

Lieutenant William R Thompson from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was on assignment from the 99th Pursuit Squadron, established by the War Department on January 16, 1941, to eventually train Black U. S. Army Air Force combat pilots at the land leased from the Institute. He had attended the earlier protocol briefing by the lead Secret Service agent on the whys and wherefores, do's and don'ts that would be in force as long as Mrs. Roosevelt was on campus.

Officially, the First Lady was coming to Tuskegee to get a progress report on the school's Civilian Pilot Training Program. Congress established the program on June 27, 1939, in anticipation of a German invasion of Poland before the end of the year. Most certainly this would trigger World War II, as Great Britain and France were treaty bound to come to Poland's defense. The Institute was among a group of selected institutions of higher learning funded to train their best and brightest to become licensed pilots, thereby creating a pool of potential fighter pilots in time of war.

Thompson, a photographer and amateur historian, recalled that in late 1940 George A. Wiggs of the Civilian Aeronautics Authority administered the standard written examination to the first class of 12 student candidates for flight training. They not only passed with flying colors, but they and subsequent cadets surpassed the passing rates of other Southern Schools.

The Institute had leased and designated Kennedy Field, a small privately owned airport located across the road from the school, as its primary flight training facility; however, the CAA held up final approval until upgrades were made to meet the authority's safety standards. It came after cadets and faculty volunteers, using donated and borrowed equipment, downed trees, flattened mounds of dirt, and installed the required runway lights.

As he arrived at Kennedy Field to photograph the high points of Mrs. Roosevelt's visit, Thompson noticed a sizable commotion on a small taxi lane abutting the runway. The Secret Service men apparently had surrounded a Piper J3 Cub trainer parked just off the runway with the news reporters looking on. Mrs. Roosevelt and Charles Alfred Anderson, the program's Chief Flight Instructor from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, were standing next to the lead agent as he was having an animated conversation on a portable phone.
Suddenly the agent nodded to Anderson and the First Lady and signaled to his men to move away from the plane. As Anderson and Mrs. Roosevelt walked toward the aircraft, a hush fell over the gathering, save for the clicking of the cameras. The Piper J3 had tandem seating. Aides helped the First Lady into the rear seat and secured her seat belt as Anderson slid into the forward seat, shut the passenger door, started the engine, taxied onto the runway, and was cleared for take off. The little plane roared down the runway and effortlessly lifted off into the sunny Alabama skies. Thompson watched as the yellow J3 finished its initial climb, leveled off , banked over the Tuskegee campus, and headed out over the surrounding countryside.

The gathering on the ground fell silent, tension mounting as time went on, and scanned the sky for a sign of the plane. Finally it dropped out of a cloud bank and smoothly touched down in a text book landing. As Anderson taxied and parked near the gathering, there was applause from her aides and Institute officials while the Secret Service detail remained subdued and whisked the First Lady away after she made a brief statement to the news reporters.

Many have written about the historic significance of that incident, but few as eloquently as the late Lieutenant Samuel Broadnax, Tuskegee Airman and author, in his book "Blue Skies and Black Pilots". "What the First Lady dramatically accomplished and publicly showed was the unquestioned confidence in entrusting her personal safety to the skill of a Black pilot, contradicting what the military was heartily promoting."

Anderson later shared with Thompson what he and the First Lady talked about in their preflight conversations and what led up to her request that he give her a ride in his plane. Anderson said Mrs. Roosevelt confirmed that in recent days the Top Brass of the U. S. Army Air Corps and the Secretary of War made public statements declaring that Black pilots would come out of an inferior subculture and could never understand what it takes to be a top gun officer and gentleman in the U. S. Army Air Force. It was then that the First Lady requested that Anderson "take her up". She wanted to demonstrate to the world that Black pilots could skillfully fly airplanes, thereby publicly defusing the effect of the negative comments of General Henry H. Arnold and Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War.

Anderson added that apparently the lead agent's panic telephone call to his superiors prompted another call to the Oval Office. President Roosevelt was later quoted as saying, "If my wife has made up her mind to take a plane ride, I can't stop her."

Officially, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was established at Chanute Field, Illinois and William R. Thompson was among the first enlistees and early on trained to be the Squadron's Weapons Officer. He was later assigned to Tuskegee as a member of an advance team tasked to lay the ground work for the flight training program designated for the Institute.

Lieutenant Thompson rose to the rank of Colonel in the United States Air Force. He was raised in Pittsburgh where his father established a successful catering business. A Schenley High School graduate, Thompson went on to graduate from Hampton University in Virginia in 1940 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps after a year's study at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. During the years he served with the 99th and the 332nd Fighter Group, Thompson put his amateur hobbies of photography and history to good use from Tuskegee to North Africa, Sicily and Italy. His entire collection of papers and photographs are part of the Tuskegee Airman exhibit at the Aero Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Regis D. Bobonis, Sr.
Copyright; All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Red Tails Movie Release

Opening in theaters January 20, 2012, Red Tails is about a crew of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program.  Having faced segregation and racism of the worst kind and kept mostly on the ground during World War II, these Airmen are called into duty under the guidance of Col. A.J. Bullard. 

"In 1944, as the war in Europe continues to take its toll on Allied forces, the Pentagon brass has no recourse but to consider unorthodox options - including the untried and untested African-American pilots of the experimental Tuskegee training program. Just as the young Tuskegee men are on the brink of being shut down and shipped back home, they are given the ultimate chance to show their courage. Against all the odds, with something to prove and everything to lose, these intrepid young airmen take to the skies to fight for their country - and the fate of the free world."-- Pittsburgh Mr. Movietimes.

This film is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.  Produced by George LucasCast includes  Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Kevin Phillips, Nate Parker, Daniela Ruah and Michael B. Jordan.