Black History Month: Part 2

An American Hero
The story of Lee A. Archer
Part II

THE GAME CHANGES

Up until January of 1944 it was an uphill battle for the 99th Fighter Squadron. Strange as it may seem, the insidious forces of discrimination and prejudice were just about everywhere with two exceptions, our allies and the enemy. Lt. Col. Davis, while stateside overseeing the completion of the training of the 332nd Fighter Group, had his hands full with the incessant bigotry that only served to harm the war effort because of the continual obstacles put in his way. By December of 1943 they were ready to be transferred overseas.

One month later, some 10,000 miles away, American troops landed at Anzio on the west coast of Italy where their objective was Rome. They met stiff resistance, which was unexpected and their beachhead was in doubt. The American forces were being clobbered. In order to reverse this untenable situation, every available Air Corp unit in the Mediterranean was called in, including the 99th Fighter Squadron. The 99th formally entered battle on January 27th. During that critical week, the 99th shot down seventeen of the enemy, had two probables and damaged four more.

Although the 332nd Fighter Group, which consisted of the 101st, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, was too late to participate in that auspicious occasion, they did enter combat within days of their arrival. What’s more, Lt. Col. Davis was promoted to full Colonel and the 99th was transferred over to the 332nd Fighter Group. Normally, such a group will consist of only three squadrons but Davis now had four squadrons in his group, thereby making it the largest of all the Fighter Groups. In order to distinguish between the different Fighter Groups, each Group had their tails painted a certain color. The 332nd had their tails painted red.

The unqualified success of the 99th during the Anzio campaign led to Col. Davis and his four squadrons of black fighter pilots being given the prestigious assignments of long range bomber protection, albeit gradually. At first the bomber crews, which were all white, objected to their being escorted by black or colored pilots. It was not until they came to realize that the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group would not leave their side to go off in chase of a German fighter plane, hoping to chalk up a victory, that they began to officially request, “the ones with the red tails”. Col. Davis always knew what they had to do and hammered away at his pilots that a bomber has a crew of ten and was therefore more valuable than a plane with a crew of only one. The 332nd was soon transferred to the 15th Air Force which meant that their primary assignment would now be long range bomber escort. And with this new assignment they would get the P-51D, the best fighter aircraft of WWII, with the exception of the ME-262 of the Luftwaffe, the worlds first jet fighter to become operational that was 125 miler per hour faster than the P-51D.

At Ramitelli Air Force Base, a former Italian Air Base on the Adriatic, Col. Davis and the 332nd set up their headquarters, from which most of their missions were flown until the end of hostilities, taking them all over the European continent, including Berlin and the fabled Ploesti oil fields of Romania.

Of the 992 pilots that graduated from Tuskegee, 450 went overseas to take part in over 15,000 sorties in over 1,500 missions. They destroyed or damaged 136 enemy aircraft in the skies and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground. Of those pilots that were shot down, two dozen were captured and interned in Stalag Luft III and Stalag 7-A where they remained until the end of the war. Two others were shot down that were picked up by Partisan groups, one by the Greek Partisans and the other by the Yugoslav Partisans where they fought alongside their rescuers until they were returned to their own units. In addition to feats of glory, they also had an Honor Roll that listed 123 deaths from combat, some of them never to be seen again, or from training accidents, from Pearl Harbor up until VE Day.

Fast forward to 1974. There was a small article in one of the papers about a documentary that was being planned about the black pilots of WWII and that Lee Archer, an executive with General Foods in White Plains, NY, was to be interviewed for the project. I decided to write to him and after receiving a reply I called him whereupon we met in his office and had lunch in the company cafeteria. Wondering if he would remember me caused some apprehension on my part. Not only did he remember me but I was elated when he commented that I was one of his best students. As I looked around his office I was completely astonished that there was no indication of who he was or what he had accomplished. No photographs. No artifacts. Nothing. Before I could ask the question, he said, “….all that stuff was of a prior life”. I then asked him about the planned documentary to which he replied, “……those guys are just a bunch of turkeys and I have no intention of signing off on anything”.

Following our visit, I was intrigued and I decided to learn all that I could about Tuskegee. I tried to locate a book, any book, about their exploits – but there were none to be found. Gradually, over the next few years, there would be some textbooks or historical accounts of the Tuskegee Airmen, as they would become to be known – but no novels. Histories are usually cut and dried but I wanted to read a novel that included the human element about how and what they went through. By 1984 there were still no novels written about the Tuskegee Airmen. It was then that I decided to tackle the project and write one myself.

TO BE CONTINUED

2 thoughts on “Black History Month: Part 2”

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