Opinion: Given opportunity and training, 'anyone can succeed'
As an African American growing up in New York City during the 1930s, my opportunities were limited, but one of the greatest things about America is the notion that one’s dreams can come true. My fascination with flight started when I observed airplanes cruising overhead that reflected the era’s technological progress. They captured young imaginations — especially mine.
A teary-eyed junior high school guidance counselor told me that my goal to become a pilot was unattainable because of my race. But the way I saw it, airplanes would fly the same regardless of the color of the person at the controls.
Shortly thereafter I learned of an “all-Negro” flying unit: the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Finally, I had something tangible to pursue, a means to achieve my dream. After Pearl Harbor, I volunteered for the military, and my request to join the Army Air Forces was granted.
Filled with pride, I boarded the train that was to carry me from New York to basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. As the train rolled south from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, the conductor told me to move to the “colored car.” Here I was, on my way to defend liberty against Hitler’s racist tyranny, being subjected to racial discrimination in my own country.
At Tuskegee, Alabama, site of the Army’s historic black flying school, I began pilot training. On flights in open-cockpit trainers, inhaling the aroma of the rich farmland below and feeling the wind against my face was exhilarating—simply magical!
In April 1945, I was on a mission over an Austrian air base when my element was ambushed by a gaggle of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. I was twenty years old and grateful to be flying my P-51 Mustang, an exquisite high-performance fighter plane. In the fierce dogfight that ensued, I left three of the Luftwaffe fighters in flames. The action resulted in my being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
As gratifying as it was to fight for freedom abroad, it was discouraging to return home to find that little had changed. The airlines would not hire me as a pilot because of the industry’s discriminatory employment policies at the time. Rather than give in, I put myself through college at night — while working hard during the day — to pursue a career in engineering.
I had no firm plans to relate these stories in a memoir, but well-known aviation historian, local airport owner and longtime friend Philip Handleman urged me to cooperate with him in a book so that the history I lived would not be lost. I consented and Philip brought it to fruition. Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World War II never would have happened without Philip’s prodding and authorship. I’m proud of the job he did and pleased that there is a beautifully written and historically accurate record of my time as a Tuskegee Airman.
Thanks largely to Philip’s advocacy, we Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. The honor was vindication of our dream that America would one day awake to her underlying principles. And the lesson is that anyone can succeed if given the opportunity and the training — we proved it.
Soaring to Glory is an adventure brimming with hope, dreams, justice and, yes, glory. So, the next time someone tells you that you can’t do something, look to the sky and reach for the impossible.
Harry Stewart is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the subject of the new biography, Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World War II, written by Philip Handleman.