They grin and joke about how they’re going to charge a quarter for every autograph—and if they were serious and Monday morning was any indication of volume, they’d certainly be millionaires.
But what has made them famous and what they can nostalgically jest about now hasn’t always been something that draws smiles.
“I broke down at a school last year,” said 81-year-old Master Sgt. W.O. Smith, one of about 300 Tuskegee Airmen still living. “I started thinking about some of the bad things. It just hit me. That’s why we don’t like to talk about the war; we try to keep everything positive.”
Smith and a fellow Tuskegee Airman, Chief Master Sgt. Donald Summerlin, 83, kept everything just that as they spoke to a packed cafeteria of Clarkdale Elementary students Monday. They didn’t focus on past military segregation or the loss and destruction of war, but rather that people of all races and backgrounds can persevere.
“The Department of War said that we blacks can’t do it, couldn’t fight under pressure, and definitely couldn’t fly an airplane. Wrong,” said Summerlin, who enlisted in 1944 at age 17. “We made history with those raggedy airplanes they gave us."
Named after a military base near Tuskegee, AL, the group formed in 1941 and was called an “experiment” since it was the first group of black American pilots. By the time it ended in 1949, more than 15,000 had earned the title of Tuskegee Airman, including 996 pilots, doctors, nurses, navigators, mechanics, gunners and more.
Of the 450 pilots who were sent overseas to fight in World War II, 66 died and 32 were downed or captured as prisoners of war.
“The cadets were painfully aware that this was an experiment,” a video announced to the students before Smith and Summerlin spoke. “Individual success meant success for all African Americans. If they failed, all African Americans went down with them.”
But they pushed through the Germans and racism from their own countrymen, and in 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military.
The numbers from the airmen are eye-opening: more than 15,000 combat fights in 1,500 missions, and more than 1,000 German aircraft shot down. But perhaps the most famed accomplishment is that the Tuskegee fighter escorts didn’t lose a bomber in their 200-plus missions—though this is sometimes disputed.
“This is the part of war that you like,” Summerlin told the students. “We were winning. We were winning so you could sit here today. We were winning so you could be anything you wanted to be—if you want to be it.”
He served as a flight engineer and mechanic during World War II, fought in Korea and Vietnam, and retired in 1986.
“You got to like it,” he told Patch of talking with schools in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. “You got to enjoy it. And I feel I earned the right to enjoy it.”
Smith, who lives in College Park, and Summerlin, an Atlanta resident, are members of the Atlanta Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the biggest of the 55 chapters nationwide.
The great-grandson of a slave, Smith enlisted in 1947 at age 17 and became a radar operator, just missing World War II but fighting in Korea and Vietnam.
He touched some on the phrase “red tails,” a nickname stemming from the color of the rear of the planes and brought into the spotlight recently by the George Lucas film. A Tuskegee pilot thought his metal tail looked bad and wanted to paint over it, Smith said.
“That was the only paint that we had on the base,” he said. “If we had had blue, we’d be blue tails; if it had been green, green tails.”
Smith said the attention given to the Tuskegee Airmen in movies is a great thing, but there are some inaccuracies that should be pointed out.
In the 1995 movie The Tuskegee Airmen, Billy "A-Train" Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is shot down and dies. The real A-Train, Charles Dryden, died in 2008 after writing A-Train: Memoires of a Tuskegee Airman six years prior.
“He wrote that book and said, ‘I’m alive. I did not die in World War II. I’m still here today,’” Smith told the students.
A fallacy in Red Tails is the portrayal of fighter planes engaging one another head-on, a dangerous and unbeneficial manuever that would have never happened in real life, Smith said.
In 2007, 330 Tuskegee Airmen or their widows were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. But for Smith, the real heroes are those who passed long before, namely the 66 shot down in World War II, two of whom he knew.
“They didn’t ever get the chance to see The Tuskegee Airmen or the Red Tail movie,” he said after all the kids cleared out of the cafeteria. “They didn’t get a chance to get the medals. That’s why I call those guys my heroes.”
Returning to the lighter tone and smile, Smith takes a few pictures with star-struck adults at Clarkdale and signs a couple more autographs. He also lets everyone see his Congressional Gold Medal up close.
On his way out the door to lunch, he briefly discusses being a courier during Vietnam, where he delivered “top secret” messages. When asked if those messages were delivered by plane, he laughs in a covert tone: “I can’t tell you everything.”