Living history: Tuskegee aviator visits UAA
by Tracy Kalytiak |
Nyabuony Kueth knows about the Tuskegee Airmen. She heard in one of her classes about the acclaimed group of World War II aviators, and has even seen a movie about them.
At UAA's Black History Month kickoff, the 11-year-old Clark Middle School student actually met one of the 31 surviving Tuskegee Red Tail pilots, Lt. Col. Leo Gray, 89, and heard him describe what it was like to fly in the cockpit of a fighter during missions high above Europe.
"It's really like a life-changing event," Nyabuony said, "to meet someone who lived through the times I learned about in school."
Conquering racist falsehoods
"The times" Nyabuony learned about were years when whites in the states of the former Confederacy forced blacks to comply with Jim Crow laws creating a racial caste system and segregating public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants, water fountains-and the military.
Racism existed outside the South as well, but was less openly apparent.
Bigots dominated the American military establishment. In 1925, U.S. Maj. Gen. Hanson Edward Ely of the Army War College issued a classified report, "The Use of Negro Manpower in War," that spewed insulting and inaccurate pseudoscientific generalizations about African Americans and said they "failed" while serving in the military during World War I.
African Americans had tried for years to enlist and train as military aviators but the military establishment continually rebuffed their efforts. Political pressure, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and a shortage of pilots combined to compel the U.S. Army Air Corps to train and employ African-Americans as officers and pilots. Most of the black pilots graduated from the Civilian Pilot Training Program-in which Alabama's historically black Tuskegee Institute started participating in 1939-and those CPTP pilots then applied to the Army Air Corps. The Corps began aviation cadet training in 1940 and the first all-black units started training at Tuskegee. Those men became the first pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen when the program officially began in June 1941.
Entering an elite group
The Tuskegee Airmen had just started battling Nazis in Europe when Gray, then 18, decided to try to become an aviation cadet.
Gray was born in Boston on May 30, 1924 and graduated in 1942 from Boston English High School. He ran track, but missed five of his meets because he preferred to play first-chair trumpet for the Boston High School Symphony Band.
As a teen, Gray visited his grandmother in Revere and saw biplanes taking off and landing at a civilian airfield as he and his friends played in a nearby swimming hole.
"We were just awed to see them flying, but I had no aspirations to fly one," Gray said. "We didn't even have a car!"
After graduation, Gray worked at the Boston Port of Embarkation. "I was a laborer lifting boxes and was promoted to being a tally clerk counting boxes," he said.
Gray decided in May 1943 to take a test to become an aviation cadet, neatly sidestepping a military draft that would have placed him in a job as an Army quartermaster tasked with menial labor-"a servant," Gray said-or a Navy steward tasked with equally menial labor.
"Back in those days, pilots were revered like astronauts are now," he said. "If I became a pilot, I'd be somebody."
The Army Air Corps shipped Gray to Biloxi, Miss., for 30 days of basic training and then to the Tuskegee Institute for five months of college training in math, English, physics and other core subjects. The Corps promoted Gray to aviation cadet, which nudged his salary from $50 to $75 a month.
The first instructors Gray had after joining the military were African American. White instructors trained him, however, as he moved through more advanced requirements, since Tuskegee's most experienced black pilots had already been sent to Europe.
Gray received 10 hours of training in a J-3 Piper Cub and, on Jan. 24, 1944, took his first solo flight.
One of his first forays into the sky ended before the Curtis P-40 Tomahawk he was piloting even took off, when a wheel came off as he accelerated down the runway toward its takeoff speed of 80 miles per hour. Aviators gave the P-40 a nickname, "Flying Coffin," because the planes tended to crash.
"At Tuskegee, we had to strengthen our legs so they could handle the mechanical torque of the plane," he said. "It was buffeting so much I couldn't keep it straight. I chopped the throttle before the speed hit 80."
The plane rolled to an uneventful stop and tipped onto one wing. Gray thought a wheel might have collapsed.
An ambulance sped to the scene and medics placed Gray on board, preparing to take him to a doctor for a check-over.
"As we drove away, I said, 'Look, somebody lost a wheel,' and one of the guys said, 'That's yours,'" Gray said.
Going to war
Gray sailed to Europe in March 1945, bound for Ramitelli airfield-the 332nd Fighter Group's home base, located on the Adriatic Sea just above the ankle of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula. From there, Gray flew red-tailed P-47 Thunderbolts-single-engined, single-seat monoplane fighters-on 15 missions that took him over Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia. Gray escorted planes bringing back pilots who had needed to parachute out of downed planes. He also escorted Lockheed P-38 Lightnings performing photo reconnaissance and headed out on strafing missions that involved flying low to attack ground targets with aircraft-mounted automatic weapons.
"We were on the way to a target in Austria and I was the last man in the fourth squadron," Gray said. "In the middle of the Alps, there was one burst of flak about 25 feet away. I'd only seen it in the movies and thought, 'So that's what [flak] looks like. Gee, that's close.' Flak is shrapnel; if it hits you, you're down. If that flak had been a fraction of a degree off, it would've hit me."
That was Gray's closest brush with death during his service in World War II. His other 14 missions were, he said, "milk runs."
The war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Hurdling barriers of racism
Gray experienced the insults and humiliations of bigotry throughout his three-year, seven-month military career.
A ticket clerk in South Carolina refused to sell him a ticket for a sleeping car when Gray was trying to travel home to Boston on leave. He ended up catching a flight home instead. Black officers weren't allowed to use officers' clubs on many bases, leading to incidents like the Freeman Field Mutiny.
Italians in communities near Ramitelli treated Gray and other black aviators well; racism he experienced there came from fellow American aviators.
In Italy, 17 B-24s with 10 men on each plane had to land at Ramitelli because a snowstorm had blanketed their intended destination.
"They found out they were on a black base and didn't know what to do," Gray said, with a chuckle. "They decided to stay on the airplanes but the cold weather changed their minds. They came and knocked on the door, 'Can we come in?' They stayed four nights. That was unplanned integration."
Gray returned to Tuskegee in January and then, in August 1946, was sent to a base in Columbus, Ohio, and promoted to captain. Gray entered the Air Force Reserve four months later and remained in it until 1984.
Interested in business administration related to agriculture, Gray earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1950. He then earned a master's degree from the University of Nebraska. He performed postgraduate work at the University of Maryland, from 1962-1964.
Gray built a 30-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The roots of our society are in agriculture," Gray said. "Throughout the world, agriculture is underrated but still is a dominant part of the economy. There are a lot of people who don't realize this-they think milk comes from supermarkets."
Establishing a lustrous legacy
A line of people formed to meet Gray as he waited for the Black History Month kickoff celebration to begin. Others examined large photos of Tuskegee Airmen and articles about them that had been propped on easels nearby.
"I want to thank you for the service you made to your country," one man in a leather flight jacket told Gray. "It's just an honor to meet you."
A little girl presented Gray with a big red heart-shaped box of candy, and a woman offered a jar of homemade raspberry syrup.
Cessilye Williams, principal of Clark Middle School in Anchorage, brought 32 pupils to see Gray.
"Our students have been working diligently on National History Day projects," she said. "Several students focused on the Tuskegee Airmen. Coming here was just incredible, because it brought history to life for our students-this person was one of those dynamic young men."
Being part of a group that carved a key niche in civil rights and military history is "fascinating," Gray said.
"The Tuskegee Airmen were the cream of the crop of black youth," he said. "I'm very proud to be one of them."