Lt Col Robert Ashby, Original Tuskegee Airman
Ivan: One of the things I want to say right up-front Bob is that I'm honored that you would take the time…There's such a wealth of knowledge in what you have, that anything you say is valuable to us and the generations that have followed. So, I have the questions, but they are by no means intended to limit you from anything that you want to say. You read the book...
Bob: Yeah oh yeah,
Ivan: The first book was more of an empirical book, it had a couple of premises, and then I set out to with data and examples and tables to try and prove those premises. This book is a little bit different, I'm still kind of shooting at the same target, but my goal is to fill this book up with the stories of others from your generation to the recent graduates of pilot training and to see if any themes emerge... How did your pilot training environment compare to your high school, college and home environment, I mean did you go to an integrated school, did you go to an all-black high school, college?
Bob: Yeah, the school was integrated, I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. So, the entire country was integrated except for that small section in the south-east down in our country. And the main thing about people going into the Service then, World War II, was that this is an integrated country. Why did they come up with this scenario that “oh we have to segregate these blacks coming into the military now.” And keep them separate from us. The country was not segregated per say, only that small section of the country. There was you know, discrimination and people probably in other parts of the country who had different ideas but at least the laws of the particular states and so forth was not in their favor, so they could not go out and openly discriminate against people. Now in the south-east, there are of course, well they can go into, the laws were there. And I don’t know whether or not you knew this or not but Tuskegee, the Tuskegee Army Air Base originally was segregated, I don’t know whether you knew that?
Ivan: No, I didn’t. I knew the officer’s club was segregated.
Bob: The entire Tuskegee Air Base was segregated, at that time you had to have a white commander of a black base, so therefore, the white commander of the base and the white instructors were there, they segregated themselves and they publicly gave information and orders and everything that this would be segregated. They had separate drinking fountains, separate eating facilities, separate community casual type of activity, it was all separated. And of course, this really struck the blacks at the base in such a tremendous fashion that it was almost ready to erupt into rebellion. And the Air Corps at that time realized this, and they replaced the commander with Colonel Noel Parrish. Colonel Noel Parrish came in, and he immediately changed everything and said hey this is an integrated base. Everyone is doing this thing on your own; we work together, eat together, do everything together. And he was a tremendous influence on the black base at that time. In fact, because of his influence, one of the highest honors that we have in the Tuskegee Airmen is the Noel Parish Award which is given out each year to an outstanding individual. And things like this happen, and we really got rid of that guy (previous commander) and went back to our integrated base. And he went out and talked with the people in the local community, the white people, and said hey this is the way it is…we’re integrating the base…this is their base and we're coming in and integrating it. So that took care of that. So, I don’t know whether you knew that, but I wanted to get that out, okay go ahead.
Ivan: No, I knew Colonel Parrish brought some changes, but I didn’t know it down to that level.
Bob: Yeah it was.
Ivan: I thought it was still a segregated base and that he was just fairer to blacks than the previous commander.
Bob: No, no he changed everything.
Ivan: So, you went from an integrated high school to pretty much an all-black unit?
Bob: Oh yeah.
Ivan: How was that for you?
Bob: It was disturbing because mostly, I was seventeen in high school and I was delivering the black newspapers at the time trying to make extra money for the family. And you know Amsterdam news, Pittsburgh Courier and so forth, all of those black newspapers. And I was keeping abreast of what was going on and the activities as far as the war was concerned. Because at seventeen I realized I was coming up on the age of eighteen and that I would be drafted. So, therefore, I had to make some decisions on what the heck was going to go on here. And with trying to get into the Air Corps with the changing of the military laws and stuff like that and getting Roosevelt to really commend that and go along with it. That was something I was hoping for and when I realized and read in the newspaper that they were allowing blacks into the cadet corps at that time. That was my main objective because I did not want to be a truck driver, digging ditches, fixing runways or stuff like that.
Ivan: So you were just trying to be a commissioned officer, or you were trying to be also a flying officer?
Bob: A flying officer, again commissioned.
Bob: And that was my endeavor and so as soon as I found out that this was going on I ran over to New York airport and enlisted in the Air Corps as a reservist because I wasn’t eighteen at the time. And then of course I went back to the high school. We found out about all the things that we could do to get information about flying, how flying is, how to fly an airplane and all this. So, I went back to the school and we did all of this and set up a little course and that was for everyone, the whites and the blacks, and this aviation you know this is what you need to get into aviation. So, I took that course and when I took the exam to go into the cadet program, I passed without any problems.
Ivan: You weren’t a beneficiary of CPTP?
Bob: No, so let me give you some background on the black cadet core (at Tuskegee Air Base). Initially, the black cadet corps had fifteen cadets and the only people that they had at the Air Base to instruct those fifteen were white instructors.
Bob: Because they said blacks didn’t know how to fly and they didn’t know anything about it. So, they never really went out to check to find out if there were any blacks and where they were and all that sort of stuff. But that came up when the CPT program started at the various black colleges and Tuskegee was the main one because they had a pretty good environment there. And blacks came in with CPT and taught individuals to fly. Like Chappie James, he went through CPT at Tuskegee. And there were quite a few other individuals Roberts, (Spanky Roberts) he went through CPT. I would say the first maybe ten or fifteen classes they went through CPT they learned how to fly before they came to Tuskegee Institute where the primary training took place. The primary training and learning how to fly the old PT 17 and PT 19 aircraft. All of this happened right there at the Tuskegee Institute with black instructors. But when they went over to the Air Base, when you graduated from primary and went into basic you went to the Air Base. And there were all white instructors there. The white instructors continued instructing at the Air Base until there were sufficient pilots coming from back from overseas and from Europe and they came in and gradually assumed the role of instructors. And we got rid of all the white instructors.
Ivan: Can you tell me what the mood was like? I mean you weren’t there when the switch over happened but what did you hear about the difference between the switch? You know what it was like before with the white instructors and what it was like afterward with the all black cadre?
Bob: Well there are many views of what was going on at that time. One of the major views was that they had a quota, and that they can only graduate so many per class as it went along. But apparently, this was the major aspect of it…some of them said they had really good (white) instructors. They felt that they were there to do a job and they would do a really good job and teach these guys how to fly and get them ready for combat. So, it was a, I would say the major difference was that they had this... they thought that it was a quota system. And that was the major emphasis on how many guys would graduate from cadet training.
Bob: And this went on right on up through, like my class we started out in primary with a hundred and seventy-five and we graduated thirty-five.
Bob: Some classes in front of us, I remember one class, I can’t think which one it was. But it might have been 45G something like that. No, it wasn’t G, it was back there, they graduated with eight cadets.
Bob: And usually at that time they were having input into the class roughly around a hundred and sixty, a hundred and seventy individuals.
Ivan: Wow I've never heard those kinds of numbers. Because I guess we all kind of think 'oh yeah they all went in and they all came out and graduated and became pilots.'
Bob: No, no there were so many pilots that were washed out in cadet training. And I saw some of the guys they washed out, they were better, I would hate to say it, but they were better fliers than I. I had no problem with cadet training. It was something that I felt that anyone can fly an airplane. All they do is get instructions and learn how to do it and hey I can do that. So I had no fear of the cadet program. Even the feeling that I was incapable of doing it. I went in with the idea I'm going to get through this program and become a pilot and fly and that's it. So no big problem there. But that was the concept that was going on there…I can’t figure out where it came to a decision that all of the whites got out and the blacks took over completely. But it was a long time before my class. It was all black instructors and these guys they were probably I would say tougher than the whites probably were. Because they wanted to make sure that whoever they passed through they knew what the heck they were doing.
Bob: So they were pretty tough on us.
Ivan: Wow, so going back to what you said about the small numbers of folks that were coming through. Was that an aptitude thing, was it another aspect, a non-flying reason, why so many washed out? What can you tell me about it? I mean that's more than fifty percent that's like seventy-five percent of the people washed out.
Bob: Oh yeah, well really you can’t really put a finger on it, what caused this. That's why this thing of the quota came up, because some of the guys as I said washed out, they were good pilots. But well an example in my class, one of (the guys in) my class was ready to graduate. We went out and bought the uniforms and everything, got fitted for them. They were all made up and one of my classmates he had sent back information to his family that they we were going to graduate and for them to come down to Tuskegee. And this individual already had his uniform and everything, invited his parents to come down for graduation, and he was washed out.
Bob: And that's probably maybe within a week or something of graduation. So, it's hard to say what was going on, what criteria they used to get rid of the individuals or wash them out. Whether it was a quota or not, it was never proven. Never really got to the point that there was any real definite information that it was a quota system that they had. But there was a great feeling among us cadets that there was.
Ivan: Now would you say it was subjective? Because being a non-pilot, even you know I'm fifty-two and so my classmates would have went through pilot training around 1986, ‘87 and I've heard various things. I've heard that “no Ivan, the best people make it through pilot training. And the best people, out of those that make it through pilot training, get fighters”. And then I've heard that “no Ivan, it is very subjective.” And it's very easy to give somebody an UNSAT, to give them a hook. So, I'm hearing you say even back in your day, I guess I'm asking even for clarification, how much subjectivity would you say was in that? Would you say the best sticks all got it and if you weren’t one of the best it was that you didn’t?
Bob: Well as I said, you know some of the individuals that they washed out, I thought they were really good pilots. And I thought they were better than some of the guys who did not wash out. So that brings in a different area of evaluation of what was happening at that time. But we never could or never did establish anything. And of course, when we got the black instructors in there this particular difference, seventy-five percent, sixty percent washed out was still there.
Bob: So, I guess they did take the top of the group but then you had many in the areas that washed out that were really qualified capable pilots.
Ivan: Okay I got you, I mean from your experience, looking back on it. I only know from history that there were only so many airframes. Do you think, I mean from what you saw, as going past that and getting a slot, like right now we could point to the number of airframes we have in the Air Force and say 'oh there is a pilot shortage, we don’t have enough butts to put in seats so to speak. Was it your experience that we didn’t have enough airframes or?
Bob: No that wasn’t really a factor.
Bob: Somewhere along there when we got, I think it was ‘44, the latter part of ’43 or 44 we had four squadrons over in Europe. The whole 332nd fighter group was over there. The 99th was separate at the time but once they got all three squadrons over and the Composite Group of the 332nd fighter group, the 99th was ordered back from the attachment they had with the white groups back to the 332nd. And the Tuskegee Airmen was the only group with four squadrons. The normal composition of squadrons at that time was three squadrons. And the 332nd fighter group was the only outfit over there with four squadrons. Which is not the normal set up. And they decided at that time with the guys continually graduating and getting ready to go overseas, they did not want any more black overseas pilots. They did not want anymore because they weren’t going to start another group. They weren’t going to put them with attachment to white groups and all that. They had a group over there 332nd and that was it. And all the pilots that were graduating continued to fly and gain more experience here in the States waiting for something to happen. And then of course the Air Corps got wind that people were wondering why they're not sending these blacks overseas when they needed fighter pilots over there or whatever. They weren’t sending them overseas. They were here in the states flying around at Tuskegee. So, then they came up with the idea that they would start the 477th Bomb Group so that you know they'll have something for them to do. And in my opinion, the 477th Bomb Group was never envisioned to be completed and be a full-scale bomber group ready to go overseas.
Bob: …well first of all they went to Godman Air Base which is a small airfield like one of the little, like Glendale airport here in Phoenix. And they had four squadrons of B-25s there. There was hardly any room to move around and do anything. Guys had to live maybe thirty-five miles away from the base because Godman was a small town. And to find accommodations, people were all over the countryside finding places to live. The white instructors who were instructing the bomber group there, they all, and even the commander, they had housing over at Fort Knox. So, all they did was just go over to Fort Knox and they had housing and clubs and everything. Whereas the blacks over at Godman, they had a really overcrowded Air Base, the planes people and everything. They had inadequate housing, everything there was really poor. Some guys were living in shacks at one time until they could find something better. Now when I graduated we were getting ready to close Tuskegee, so I was permanent party there working the close up of the base so that we can move up to Godman. And low and behold one day orders came down Bob Ashby you are transferred and assigned to Japan. And I you know I was a second lieutenant and I said what the heck is this? So, I couldn’t do anything about it, these were orders so, I went along with the orders and ended up cross country, cross the States by train and on the boat in Seattle. And it took us twenty-one days to get to Japan because we went everywhere. We went to Alaska. From Alaska we went to Korea. From Korea then we went back to Japan. So I ended up in Japan. And of course, being a pilot over at Japan going through the replacement depot they assumed 'oh hey you’re assigned to the Air Base. So they assigned me to Yokota Air Base which is in far south of Tokyo. And I took the train down there and I reported in. They take one look at me and say, 'oh go back to the barracks we will contact you tomorrow.' They did. The next day I got orders going back to the replacement depot because they were not going to accept a black guy into the white outfit because that was the military status at that time. Blacks were not assigned to white outfits. So, I ended back at the replacement depot and the people there really did not really have a full scope for what was going on. And so, they said, 'oh they probably have enough pilots,' so they assigned me to Tachikawa Air Base. And I reported in at Tachikawa and they took one look at me and the same thing went on. I ended up going back to the replacement depot. So they finally got the idea well 'hey you know the whites are not accepting blacks so let’s see if we can find a black outfit to assign this guy to. And so the nearest was one the Tokyo Quartermaster depot. So I was assigned to the Tokyo Quartermaster depot.
Bob: When I reported in the first thing that I did was send a letter out to McArthur headquarters, “hey I'm not assigned to an Air Base.” So I request permission and organization assignment to an Air Base that I can maintain my flying proficiency. Because all pilots had to fly four hours a month in order to maintain their proficiency and get paid as a flying officer. And so that is why I requested this. Assign a base where I can maintain my flying proficiency. And of course, the letter came back and said, “no there's no Air Base over here that you can be assigned to so you will have to stay at the Tokyo Quartermaster depot.” So I immediately sent another later back. Well if this is the case I was assigned here with a job of flying and nothing is available, so I should be assigned back to the black outfit the 332nd fighter group at Lockbourne Air Base at that time. And they said 'oh no you're over here now, so you’re going to stay for the tour which was three years. So being as there’s no Air Base accepting me they took me off flying status.
Bob: So I ended up off flying status in Japan at the Tokyo Quartermaster depot. Now something happened here that was very....wasn’t planned, I ended up at the Tokyo Quartermaster depot learning different things that I would never have learned had I been flying out there, assigned to an outfit with my primary duty as flying. I was assigned as the adjutant of one of the truck companies and of course actually easily ran the company. And the company itself was really a composite company. They had their own mess hall, cooks and everything, truck drivers. So you had to be aware of what was going on and everything.
Ivan: Let me go back to something you said about the course that you had, you didn’t get to go through CPTP, but you had a course, was that more like ground school, and was it something you guys created or was it something that was created for you?
Bob: No this is the complete program that Air Corp had set up for their cadets. We followed the same course that was designed for the white cadets.
Bob: The only difference was that while they were building the Air Base and getting that ready, Tuskegee Institute took over the primary training. And the primary training, the first phase of the primary training was primarily ground school.
Bob: All about aviation which is similar to what the whites were doing at that time. And then later upon completion of ground school we went into flying. We would fly half a day and do ground school half a day. So that went on until we completed primary training. And after you completed primary training then you went over to the Air Base and you follow the same curriculum that the whites were following in their cadet training. 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 establish 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 as 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 had that. I've never heard that before. Because you know in the movies they always show everybody you know that graduated became a lieutenant, they didn’t show these other...
Bob: We had lots of flight officers graduating and most classes had more flight officers than second lieutenants.
Ivan: So tell me…at a unit what does a flight officer do and how is it different from a lieutenant?
Bob: Well he was not an officer, so he cannot perform any officer's duty, so primarily what they did was just fly.
Bob: And of course, I graduated second lieutenant and we second lieutenants would say “hey what the heck those guys that sit around and play cards all day and fly” and they got us doing Class A agents, we had so many additional duties. I mean everything they found that you needed someone, an officer to do it, especially when the base was being reduced and closing. You were given additional duties left and right as a second lieutenant, as an officer. Whereas the flight officers never got any of this, they were not an officer, so they could not hold an officer’s position.
Ivan: What happened to all those guys when the Army Air Corps became the Air Force? What happened to those people?
Bob: Well that was later on in ‘47.
Ivan: Yeah ‘47.
Bob: They, flight officers, they went overseas along with everyone else flying. A lot of the guys went over there a great many of them as, 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 people that are flying the escort missions and doing the things that the Tuskegee Airmen did, that many of those people were flight officers?
Bob: Yes, yes.
Ivan: Wow I've never heard that before.
Bob: In fact I was reviewing something not too long ago about Freeman Field, 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.
Bob: So, there were quite a few flight officers, and they did have a system set up where they could 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.
Ivan: Oh wow.
Bob: So, there’s a big aspect of the Tuskegee Airmen (movie) that really doesn’t go into the minute details of the entire Tuskegee Airmen and what was going in there.
Ivan: ….everyone that you hear that has one of those famous names has some kind of officer rank attached to them. I don’t know how a flight officer would be addressed. Like if I was talking about an enlisted person I might say 'technical sergeant’ or ‘master sergeant' in recent times or 'staff sergeant.'
Bob: Well a warrant officer is usually above the sergeant.
Ivan: Right, but how would you address them if I was saying their name, warrant officer so and so?
Bob: No, you address them as sir…
Ivan: But if you were calling them out would you say, 'Warrant officer Johnson?'
Bob: Yeah that’s his rank. Yeah.
Bob: If he’s is a flight officer, then he’s flight officer so and so, instead of lieutenant so and so.
Ivan: Did they put them in the same barracks with officers?
Ivan: Because I know they couldn’t put them in with the enlisted okay.
Bob: Yeah, they are in the same barracks.
Ivan: I have never heard of that. I mean in all the interviews, movies...
Bob: I’m giving you a lot of great stuff.
Ivan: You’ve given me a lot of great stuff, this has been good. I want to be mindful of the time though because I have been trying to keep it at thirty and we are just about ten minutes over that. I do want to ask you one last question and then obviously if there’s anything that you want to...
Bob: We could probably do something later but go ahead.
Ivan: Bob were you a pilot, a civilian pilot after that, did you become a commercial pilot?
Bob: Yes, in fact I am the only Tuskegee Airman that was a commercial airline pilot. Because after the war all of the guys coming back from overseas, a lot of those guys were discharged at that time because with the group, the 332nd fighter group you were only recording tech orders, you were only flying so many individuals through that group. So we had too many, we graduated pretty close to a thousand pilots. Figures, records were pretty lousy at that time and they had 996 at one time and that was never a really correct answer of how many we graduated. So they just said roughly about a thousand pilots. And the flight officers they stayed in during this period of time. All went up to B-25 training at Godman and from there they went to Michigan, from Michigan back to Freeman Field in Indiana. There were many flight officers, there were more flight officers at the offices than second lieutenants and first lieutenants.
Bob: So there were quite a large group of flight officers.
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