Tuskegee Airman shares his story of serving with distinction

  • Published
  • By Sarah Olaciregui
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
During World War II, the U.S. military was racially segregated, reflecting American society and law at that time. An experiment in the U.S. Army Air Forces, however, showed that given equal opportunity and training, African-Americans could fly in, command and support combat units as well as anyone.

James Sheppard was one of the men selected to be a part of the experimental group that came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He was invited by the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Institute, with support from the African American Heritage Month committee, to share his story in the Garden Auditorium of Building 1614 on Feb. 17.

Mr. Sheppard was born in New York City in 1924. As a boy, he would always like to see planes flying overhead.

"My father knew I was interested in airplanes at a young age," said Mr. Sheppard. "One time a black civilian pilot came to the church we attended, so I went to go meet him and hear him speak. It was at that time I learned there were a lot of black civilian pilots and had been for a long time."

Mr Sheppard joined the Army Air Forces in 1942 and became an aviation mechanic. He was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron, based at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., where he eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant.

During his hour-long presentation, Mr. Sheppard spoke about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman. Before joining the service he knew there were other African-American civilian pilots flying as mercenaries for other countries before the United States entered World War II. He knew it was possible for black people to succeed as pilots.

He also described his experiences in Alabama.

"Mrs. Roosevelt, the president's wife, was a big supporter of integrating blacks in the military. When she visited, she asked if she could fly with a black pilot," he said. "Because of her persuasion, the president ordered the military to create an all-black fighter squadron. There were about 20 of us at first, but it worked so well, they created an entire squadron."

The Tuskegee Airmen went through intense training during their time in Alabama. Before they could go overseas, Mr. Sheppard explained how they had to pass a combat readiness training assignment in Michigan.

Mr. Sheppard then shared information about and photos of the many different planes he worked on throughout the war.

"The P-39 was a pretty good plane," he said. "We were known for the red paint scheme on the P-51s. That's how we got the name 'red tails.'"

But, Mr. Sheppard said if he had a choice on which plane he would fly in, it would be the P-47 Thunderbolt.

"The Thunderbolt will bring you back home," he said.

In addition to leading the way with military integration, the Army Air Corps was the only part of the service where enlisted members could communicate with officers in a frank matter, according to Mr. Sheppard.

"We didn't salute on the flight line," he said. "Before the pilot would go, I would tell him he better not screw up my airplane. Of course, when we left the flight line, it was a different story. I didn't talk to the officers like that."

Mr. Sheppard also explained to the group what life was like overseas in Italy. Even during war time, the men trained and went through inspections.

"Each morning, we would launch 48 P-51s between 7 and 8 in the morning," he said. "The pilot had 18 seconds to get off the ground. If he couldn't do it, we knew something was wrong with the engine."

The unit endured a lot of loss during the war, as well.

"Some men experienced four D-Days before the actual D-Day took place in France," Mr. Sheppard said, referring to the invasion of Normandy. "By the fifth, the guys were trained and knew what to do."

The men also took pride in making sure the bombers they were escorting were able to accomplish the mission, but it didn't come easy.

"The German pilots were pretty good and they had good planes," he explained. "We were losing pilots fast."

Throughout the war, more than 100 pilots were killed or missing in action. Of those, more than 30 were prisoners of war, according to reports.

But the losses didn't deter the Tuskegee Airmen from accomplishing the mission. They shot down 111 German planes and damaged 25 while in the air. They also damaged 123 German planes that were grounded.

Mr. Sheppard explained how several Tuskegee Airmen even sunk a German destroyer by flying parallel with the water and firing the canons at the ship.

"The Royal Navy said we sank it, but the U.S. didn't give us credit for it," said Mr. Sheppard. "I was part of a research team that worked with people at Maxwell Air Force Base that helped prove we sunk that destroyer. We finally got credit for it last September."

Throughout his presentation, a sense of pride was apparent to those who listened. He proudly wore the Tuskegee Airmen patch on his jacket and spoke of attending meetings each year. He even recently represented the group at a funeral after remains of a pilot from Maine were identified.

According to a fact sheet at www.nationalmuseum.af.mil, the Tuskegee Airmen served with distinction in combat and directly contributed to the eventual integration of the U.S. armed services, with the U.S. Air Force leading the way.

"That's what the Tuskegee Airmen are all about," said Mr. Sheppard.