The new George Lucas produced film RED TAILS reminds American audiences of the heroics of the African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program. In historian J. Todd Moye’s book FREEDOM FLYERS: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, Moye captures the challenges and triumphs of these brave pilots in their own words, drawing on more than 800 interviews recorded for the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. In an excerpt from the book, here is one of their stories:
Horace Augustus Bohannon required no introduction to Jim Crow. The tenth of ten children born into very poor circumstances in Atlanta, Georgia, he knew all about racial segregation and unequal treatment long before he
came of age. “You knew that you didn’t go that way because that was white only, and you know that you’re supposed to be reserved—or preserved—over here. But that’s the way we came up. We had to learn to live with it,” Bohannon remembered. “Somewhere early in life, my mother got us to understand that if you live right, you could do well despite the segregation laws and so forth.” They could survive, if not thrive, even in the unjust system if they followed her simple piece of advice: “You do right.”
Bohannon’s family suffered terribly in the Great Depression, so he got the first of many jobs at the age of eight. His favorite childhood assignment was as a helper on a laundry truck, because the laundry service made pickups and deliveries at Candler Field, Atlanta’s airport: “Once you got there, there were these pilots standing around talking,” Bohannon recalled. “You didn’t get to touch the airplanes, but you were at least in the audience, listening to them talk, which I enjoyed.” The truck’s driver, “a full-fledged Georgia cracker, filled up with all the things that his father had taught him,” noted Bohannon’s interest, took pity on him, and tried to talk the boy out of what was quickly becoming his life’s dream. “Horace, I know you like that stuff, but I think you’re wasting your time,” Bohannon remembered the man telling him. “There is no chance in the world that you could ever work around them or be one of the pilots.”
“I did not argue with him, but I like to look back on it today, and I wish I could see that same man,” Bohannon said before he died in 2003. “He didn’t mean to be destructive; he just thought he was doing me a favor to say, ‘Don’t even dream about it.’ I never quit dreaming about it.” Bohannon worked his way through Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and went on to study at Lincoln University just outside of Philadelphia. When Lincoln began a program to train civilian pilots, Bohannon “wasn’t far back in the line of students that went down to sign up. It was so exciting,” he recalled, “because there was something new every day. I don’t care who you were; there was always something that you didn’t know, about flying, about the whole world.”
Bohannon dropped out of college after his junior year and returned home to earn money. A friend in Atlanta let him know about Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF), the military base under construction about a day’s drive away, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee Institute had been training civilian pilots for a number of years and had just opened Moton Field, a primary flight training base it operated under contract for the Army Air Corps (AAC). Now the War Department was building TAAF from scratch on the outskirts of town.
The idea of building an air base intrigued Bohannon. He found a job at TAAF as a carpenter’s apprentice. Then almost as soon as he got to Tuskegee, he learned of a program in the works to train black instructor pilots for the incoming cadets. Bohannon used the skills he had learned in civilian pilot training to pass the entrance exam for that program, and he began the training course. When the program was unexpectedly interrupted, he found work driving the station wagon that ferried aviation cadets back and forth from their living quarters at Tuskegee Institute to Moton Field and later was hired as the timekeeper in the control tower, tabulating cadets’ flight times.
In March 1943, unable to save enough money to allow him to return to Lincoln, Bohannon quit his job at Moton Field and went back to Atlanta to drive a cab. By September he had saved enough money to resume his studies and was back in Pennsylvania. Once there, he found out that he had been drafted into the Army. He turned back around and reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, in October. He applied for transfer and was accepted into the flying corps, transferred to Keesler Field for basic training, and made his way back to Tuskegee as a flight cadet. Bohannon was surprised at how well he took to military life, but he did, mainly because “in the Army Air Corps you got to know just millions of people who had dreams and desires and so forth.” He cherished the camaraderie he developed with the cadets he met there, young men like Charles Johnson Jr., whose renowned father was the president of Fisk University in Nashville; Mitch Higginbotham, whose first cousin A. Leon Higginbotham would become a distinguished attorney and federal judge; and “Pokey” Spaulding, whose family managed the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Co. in Durham, North Carolina, one of the most prosperous black businesses in the country. At the outset of the program, the AAC only accepted cadets who had completed at least two years of college, so the Tuskegee training program drew from the black elite. Pilot Roscoe C. Brown Jr. may have been correct when he said, “The Tuskegee Airmen were probably the most talented group of African-American men ever brought together in one place.”
Sixty years later Bohannon could still recite the “dodo” verses he was forced to memorize as a cadet. If an upperclassman asked, “What time is it?” he had to stand at attention and say, “ ‘Sir, the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of my poor chronometer are in such a sad state of discord with the great sidereal movement by which all time is commonly reckoned that I cannot with any degree of accuracy give you the correct time. However, without fear of being too wrong or too far off, I will say that it is fifty-eight minutes, twenty-two seconds, two ticks of a tock past the hour of four, sir!’ Oh, we had a good time,” he recalled.
Bohannon remembered December 20, 1944, the day he graduated from the cadet program, as one of the proudest of his life, because he got to show his family around TAAF. “Papa came, and of course on guard at the gate were a black sergeant, a black corporal, a black private. The whole military is black,” Bohannon said. “As he drives up through there, they find some other men doing their work—all over the place, except for the very top cadre of officers, we’re all black. And that place was clean, orderly. I wish you could have seen it.” His family was impressed.
J. Todd Moye is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of the Oral History Program at the University of North Texas and author of Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. A historian of the American civil rights movement, he directed the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project from 2000 to 2005. He consulted on Double Victory, the Lucasfilm documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen.