At first, I didn’t know how to feel about Gen. Goldfein and Gen. Jumper’s fathers going from enlisted to fighter pilot without a degree. I had mixed feelings because I didn’t know if the programs that allowed enlisted members without a college degree to become pilots were open to African Americans. I knew that many of the Tuskegee Airmen were men with technical degrees in the 1930s and had to be the best and brightest of all the minority applicants considered.
I later found out that Tuskegee Airman James Harvey, part of the team that won the Air Force’s first Top Gun trophy for propeller aircraft, took a similar route:
“‘Tuskegee Top Gun' Lt. Col. James Harvey
Harvey: They sent me to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for 30 days of basic training, and when I finished my basic training, they sent me to …. Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Army Air Corps of engineers, driving bulldozers, graders, carry alls. My mission was to go into the jungles in the Pacific, doze out an area, build an airfield for aircraft to land on. And we used to go out and practice every day. And I says no, this isn't for me. So, I applied for cadet training, was accepted, and there were ten of us, nine whites and myself. We took the exam. Two of us passed. Then from there, I went to Keesler field for 30 days of basic training and from there to Tuskegee, and then the rest is history.
Interviewer: Folks can tell by your hat that you did something very interesting in 1949, right? That you were not only at the first Top Gun, you won the first Top Gun.
Interviewer: Tell us about it, okay?
Harvey: I'd say January of ‘49, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force sent out a directive to all the fighter groups in the United States. That they were to participate in gunnery competition or weapons competition between each squadron and in each group. And they were to pick their three high scorers as primary members and an alternate member to represent their group at the first-ever Top Gun weapons meet to be held at Las Vegas Air Force Base Nevada. And today, it's known as Nellis. Well, the 332nd, which is us, we had scorers because we had been to Eglin a month prior. So based on our scores, Captain Temple of the 300th, first lieutenant Harry Stewart of the 100th, and myself of the 99th were chosen as primary members and first lieutenant Albert Alexander of the 99th as an alternate member. So that was our team. And before we left Lockeborn heading to Las Vegas Air Force Base, we met with Colonel Davis. He was the group commander. And his departing remark was if you don't win, don't come back. So off we went with those words of encouragement.
Interviewer: All right, so let's get out to Top Gun. What does the competition consist of?
Harvey: The competition for that meet consisted of aerial gunnery at 20,000 feet, aerial gunnery at 12,000 feet, dive-bombing, skip bombing, rocket firing, and panel strafing. Now skip bombing; you come in very low to the ground, your propeller clearing the ground by about a foot. And when you release your bombs, you're so low they don't have a chance to nose over yet, so they hit flat and skip through the target.
Interviewer: And so, as this unfolded, you guys were pretty much in the lead the whole time, right?
Harvey: We lead from start to finish.
Interviewer: What are you thinking as this is happening?
Harvey: This is the way it's supposed to be.
Interviewer: Were the other crews surprised that you were winning so easily?
Harvey: Yes, they didn't care for it. I'll tell you why. This is my estimation. Just before the last event, which was panel strafing, Uh, well, let me back up. They're going to issue two trophies—one for high individual and one for high group. Well, Captain Temple of our team was high individual. Through every event he was high individual. And we as a team through every event, a high group. So, we had one more mission to go, which was panel strafing. There was a guy in a P-51 outfit that was close behind Temple for high individual. Now, this is my thinking. One more event to go. They didn't want to see us take everything. They wanted to get something out of this. Because we had a lock on the meet. So, the only thing left is high individual. So, one of the rules of the meet was if you have to abort, your team members take off, their score is counted, yours is zero. We had a guy in a fifty-one outfit who was close behind Temple. He had to abort. They gave him another airplane. Right there, they broke the rules. His score was so high. I think they gave him extra bullets for the event. Anyway, he aced Temple out of high place for high individual. But we won the meet. However, we were never recognized as the winner. The Air Force Association puts out a magazine every month, but once a year, they put on an almanac. And in that almanac are the winners of each of the weapons meets from 1949 through present day. Today it's called Red Flag. Anyway, each year when that almanac came out, the winner of the 1949 weapons meet was listed as unknown, unknown, unknown. Finally, in 1995, our group commander Colonel Campbell called Lieutenant Stewart and asked him if he had the information on the weapons meet. And he said no, he didn't have it; maybe I did. He called me, and I told him I didn't have it. Maybe he could find it at Wright-Patt. No, I'm sorry Nellis. So, he went to Nellis, and he found what he was looking for, and he presented it to the Air Force. And as of April of 1995, it shows the 332nd as the winner of the 1949 weapons meet. Forty-six years they knew who won, but they just didn't want to recognize us. So, the only reason we were recognized was we had to submit the paperwork to Air Force.
Interviewer: Even as late as 1995, they weren't admitting it, but now they do.
Harvey: Now they do. It's on display well; let me back up again. We got a big three-foot-high solid silver trophy. Somehow that got lost. We have a lady in Atlanta. Her name is Zellie Orr. She is a historian. She made it her mission to find it. She found it in five days at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Museum storage area. So, she went to Wright Patt. She saw the trophy, and she asked, why isn't this on display? They said we had a lot of items in. We can't display everything, and this item will never be on display. Well, it is on display. Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum. Right now. You go into the door, out of the gift shop area, if you look about a hundred and thirty or forty degrees to your right, you can see it. But it is on display.
Interviewer: It's finally on display.
Harvey: Fifty-five years in hiding.” (American Veterans Center, 2020)
I think James Harvey’s example and the examples of Goldfein and Jumper are important historical precedents that should be a part of the re-examination of what is needed to become a fighter pilot and ultimately make it to the Air Force’s upper echelons. Did every white Air Force fighter pilot or four-star general graduate in the top third of their academic class? The argument being made today is that African Americans must be the best and brightest of their group in society, that a certain academic caliber of black person is needed to become a fighter pilot.
I believe this fallacious premise has been perpetuated by the Air Force to keep it from taking on the harder work of overhauling pilot training processes that are not conducive to African American men and women. Sadly, the Air Force’s premise flies in the face of its own history, the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, men like James Harvey.
As I was writing “Black Pilot,” I interviewed Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col Robert Ashby, and he shared with me that many of these greatest of the great black Air Force pilots weren’t commissioned officers at all but “flight officers”:
“I found when researching the history of the Tuskegee Airmen that many of its pilots were not second lieutenants but ‘flight officers.’ This was a significant revelation to me because the Hollywood portrayals of the Tuskegee Airmen depict all the Airmen as commissioned officers. Here’s an excerpt of an interview with OTA Lt Col Robert Ashby:
L/C Ashby You go through basic training, lower basic, upper basic, lower advance, upper advance and you graduate and become an officer or flight officer. And that was something that probably was not brought out too much. But in graduating, they established who is going to be a second lieutenant and officer and who is going to be a flight officer. Which is equivalent to warrant officer within the Air Corps. So, we had a lot of... some classes had maybe three-fourths of the class graduating with flight officers and a small group as second lieutenants. In our class, I can’t remember how many lieutenants we had. I'll have to look that up and how many flight officers we had when we graduated.
Ivan: I've never heard that. I've never heard that before. Because you know in the movies, they always show everybody that graduated became a lieutenant, they didn’t show these other...
L/C Ashby: We had lots of flight officers graduating, and most classes had more flight officers than second lieutenants.
L/C Ashby: They, flight officers, they went overseas along with everyone else flying. A lot of the guys went over there, a great many of them, in fact, as flight officers.
Ivan: So, if I'm understanding you correctly, when we think of the Tuskegee Airmen, especially some of the earlier groups, the classes of ‘42, ’43. I'll say ’43. Are you telling me that a lot of the people that when we think of the Tuskegee Airmen and the people that are flying the escort missions and doing the things that the Tuskegee Airmen did, that many of those people were flight officers?
L/C Ashby: Yes, yes.
Ivan: Wow, I've never heard that before.
L/C Ashby: In fact, I was reviewing something not too long ago, the incident at Freeman Field, about the individuals that were arrested during that period of time. Looking at the roster of the individuals who were up there at Freeman going for B-25, I would say probably sixty maybe seventy percent of them were flight officers.
Ivan: Oh, wow.
L/C Ashby: So, there were quite a few flight officers, and they did have a system set up where they can graduate, not graduate, but be promoted to a second lieutenant after a period of time. But that, of course, was dependent upon their efficiency rating and all that sort of stuff. But I know that there are some guys that went overseas as flight officers, and they came back as flight officers.”
I can imagine some people countering my argument with the notion that the technical sophistication of today's fighter aircraft is greater today than it was in the days of James Harvey in WWII, Col. Goldie Goldfein during the Korean War or Maj. Gen. Jimmy Jumper during Vietnam. If the recruiting argument was a three-legged stool, this would be one of its legs. My counter to that is that the fighter aircraft that James Harvey, Goldie Goldfein, and Jimmy Jumper flew were the most technically sophisticated aircraft of their time.
I am not saying that everyone has what it takes to fly a plane. I am saying that prior exposure to flight principles and having a knack for flying are a greater predictor of someone’s ability to fly than the numbers on their academic resume from high school or college. I believe it goes back to the whole exclusivity or inferiority issue.
I believe the academic/recruiting argument is, in many cases, a shroud to maintain the exclusivity, the eliteness of becoming a fighter pilot. This reserves fighter pilot status, with all of its subsequent perks, for one group. A group that doesn’t include very many minorities.
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