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Local Columns

March 10, 2012

Don McAllister: The War of the Red Tails, the airmen of Tuskegee

ANDERSON, Ind. — Every day starts a new story, and a recent one is the movie “Red Tails,” the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s based on the “movie” Jack and I saw on Oct. 15, 2002 when we interviewed Tuskegee Airman Lt. Walter Palmer with the help of our dear departed friend Burr Stephens.

Walter Palmer was a gentleman to the core and at the same time a brash kid from the Bronx. Like the other “colored” men who joined the Tuskegee Airmen, he was out to prove that a black man could fight as well as any man.

In New York he boarded a train for flight school in Tuskegee. Near Washington D.C. they switched trains and Walter was told to move to a baggage car (because of his race). The conductor discovered quickly that one doesn’t tell Walter Palmer what he “can’t” do.

Alabama was a different world for the young man from the Bronx, but he stayed focused and learned to fly with finesse. The Tuskegee Cadets had a need to be better than just good enough. On graduation they were eager to show the world, but the world seemed to be dragging its feet.

They were kept stateside for a long time before being released for overseas service. The early days of the Airmen’s war were a boring mixture of outdated planes and ground support missions. That changed when they were given the powerful P-51 Mustang and were assigned to support long range bombing missions.

They painted their planes with a daring bright red tail and became the most respected escort pilots in the war. Many bomber crewmen have told us that you could trust those guys to stick with you while other pilots would give into the temptation to chase a German fighter, leaving the bombers exposed. The Germans soon learned not to mess with the Red Tails.

On the voyage home they were praised by the bomber crews they had served, but as they neared America that admiration cooled and their racial gains seemed in vain.

The headline of the Tuskegee Airmen story is about discrimination, but remembering that alone diminishes their efforts. Their story is also about having the discipline to overcome reckless temptation and of serving other’s first before receiving recognition.

In our polarized society we have the extremists of skinheads and opportunists who make a living of picking at the scab of something the rest of us have moved past. We have union and management, rich and poor, left and right, and so many excuses for “them” and “us.”

There is a core of goodness in every life. It can be nurtured or diminished. We can give others common respect till they might earn our disrespect. We can open doors, be civil and put others before our petty desires. We can have that society everyone says they want but few seem willing to work for. Otherwise we can disregard the principles of the Tuskegee Airmen and chose a sadder story.

Don McAllister directs the National Veteran’s Historical Archive. His column appears the second Sunday of each month. He can be reached at Website:

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