Black History Month: Part 3

“An American Hero”
The story of Lee A. Archer – Part III

Write a novel? What was I thinking? I didn’t even know where to begin but I was determined. Back to school I went, taking classes at UCLA, learning how to get started when staring at a blank sheet of paper. While I was back in school I did research, lots and lots of research, for a total of ten years before I began to write the story. Not only did I collect all of the textbooks and historical accounts, I was able to obtain from the Air Force six rolls of the invaluable micro-film records of the day to day operations of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group.

The final story line of, “A KILLER OF LIONS”, is based on the actual facts, with the exception of only one element that I decided to include. Over the next few years I had a number of meetings with Lee Archer not only to show him where the story was going and that I was true to the memory of the Tuskegee pilots but also, for myself, to get his approval. During these meetings he stressed that I call him, “Lee”, and not, “Mister”, and certainly not, “Colonel”. When I first confided in him what I was doing, he asked me, “Why are you doing this?”, to which I replied, “Because no one has ever written a story about what you guys did and had to put up with. It’s a story that has to be told.”

These meetings were extremely beneficial to me. As he viewed the progress that I was making he would share with me some of his own experiences, a number of them so visual and real that I included them in, “A KILLER OF LIONS”.

One of the items that he shared with me has been a point of contention for a number of years, whether or not Lee Archer is in fact an ‘ace’. The coveted title of ‘ace’ is conferred upon a pilot who shoots down five or more of his enemy in aerial combat. While all of the official records give Archer only four victories, this is what he told me during one of our meetings: “I did have five victories but somehow the gun camera film for the last one was either lost or misplaced and it was only my word. To compensate for the disappointment, they gave me four and a half victories but I was pissed. Col. Davis said to me, ‘We have to go on and so let’s make the next victory a clean one’. I had no choice in the matter but to go along. Years later, the gun camera film that was ‘missing’, miraculously re-appeared and so the Air Force was now ready to extend the title of ‘ace’ to me. I had enough of their bullshit and so I told them to shove it”.

His confrontations with the Air Force did not end there. After WWII he enrolled in a program to obtain a doctorate degree whereupon the topic to be tackled was the integration of the Air Force, a subject with which he was thoroughly familiar with. Protocol required that he submit to his superior officers the final draft for official approval prior to actual submission. It was his only copy and naturally, no one knew or admitted what happened to it. It wasn’t clear whether it was subsequently found or if he had to reconstruct it based on his notes.

One of the items that he was proud of was that he was the first black pilot to have flown in combat during the Korean War. He also mentioned that at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, there is a statue commemorating the contributions of the Tuskegee pilots during WWII and that it was his image that was used to create the statue. This I had to see for myself and so I made the trip to Colorado Springs and sure enough, it was as he said.

When I asked him about Wendell Pruitt, he was sad for a moment as they had flown many missions together during the war. They were known as the ‘gruesome twosome’, a title which they earned following a mission during which they each scored a victory. They decided to do a double victory roll over the field in their P-47’s that, unbeknownst to them, was witnessed by a Republic Aviation representative on an official visit to see how their aircraft performed in combat. The company representative was shocked by the display and all that he could say was, “You can’t do that in a P-47”, to which one of the ground crew responded, “Well, they just did”. In the final months of the war, Pruitt was transferred to stateside and was taking one of his ground crew for an ‘introductory’ flight, in a dual control trainer which included an inverted pass over the field. Not used to flying upside down the hapless passenger thought that they were going to crash and pulled up on the stick when he should have pushed forward. Pruitt did not have enough time to correct the error and they plowed into the tarmac.

In 1995 HBO came out with a made for TV movie about the Tuskegee pilots that contained a paltry story line and was rife with a number of technical inaccuracies such as the pilots flying the P-51D two years before they began to roll off the assembly line. But it was better than nothing.

When I first started to work on the story, Archer told me that George Lucas was interested in making a film about them. In 2012 Lucas came out with, “Red Tails”, by using 58 million of his own money because he supposedly could not get studio backing as it was considered to be a risky project. Because of my knowledge on the subject I was interviewed on a number of radio programs to offer my comments on the movie. To be honest, the Lucas version had as many technical inaccuracies as the HBO version and the story line was somewhat hokey but I did not say that on the air.

Lee A. Archer, Lt. Col., USAF, Retired, passed away in 2011 at age 90. In January of 2009 he was invited to the swearing in ceremony of President Barack Obama. Lee Archer was never a professional basketball player nor a baseball or football player. He was certainly not a music scene rapper. He was an ‘ace’ fighter pilot and a true American Hero.

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