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.
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