Tuskegee Airmen recall heroism, victories over adversity

Donald Elder (left), a former member of the 99th Fighter Squadron and a member of the Dallas / Ft. Worth chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, signs an autograph for Erma Brooks of the 17th Communications Squadron during a luncheon at the Goodfellow Events Center Thursday. For more information, see story below. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kamaile Chan)

Donald Elder (left), a former member of the 99th Fighter Squadron and a member of the Dallas / Ft. Worth chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, signs an autograph for Erma Brooks of the 17th Communications Squadron during a luncheon at the Goodfellow Events Center Thursday. For more information, see story below. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kamaile Chan)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It's fair to say that Goodfellow doesn't see many fighter pilots. With our B-25 Mitchell displayed proudly outside the Jacobson Gate, our heritage is mainly one of bombers and bomber pilots.

That being said, many of the bomber pilots in World War II would not have survived without the valiant defense of fighter pilots flying P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts, and Goodfellow was honored to host two former comrades-in-arms of those brave pilots.

Former Army Sgt. John Flanagan and former Army Air Corps Cpl. Donald Elder prticipated in a "lunchtime with legends" luncheon at the Goodfellow Events Center Thursday, as well as speaking to Lake View High School's Junior ROTC detachment and the Goodfellow NCO Academy.

Both Mr. Flanagan and Mr. Elder are members of the Claude R. Platte DFW Tuskegee Airmen Chapter, an organization which, according to its website, strives to "bring together in a spirit of goodwill and friendship, all of the men and women who pioneered in military aviation in the Tuskegee Airmen Experience of the United States Army Air Corps and in aviation in general."

Mr. Flanagan served in the Army during World War II as an infantryman and a communications technician. When he left the Army and traveled to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for college, he was invited by C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson to learn to fly with the military students. He quickly earned his civilian pilot's license flying the P-39 Airacobra, the P-40 Warhawk and the P-51 Mustang.

When Mr. Elder enlisted in the Army at 16, following the footsteps of his older brother who was drafted, he said he wanted to be a truck driver. The Army had other plans for the young Soldier, who was trained as an aircraft mechanic on the P-47 Thunderbolt. When the 99th Fighter Squadron returned from overseas, he was assigned to them as a crew chief.

"Once I got hooked up to the 99th," Mr. Elder said, "I felt like I was going to Heaven." Mr. Elder said that despite being segregated, the unit became very close-knit. "We really got into a family-type situation," he said.

The "Tuskegee Experiment," as the two former Airmen called it, was a program designed to fail, started by President Franklin Roosevelt to appease the American public. The program was intended to test African Americans' ability to fly aircraft.

According to Mr. Elder, all of the pilot trainees at Tuskegee Institute, later at Tuskegee Army Air Field, were college graduates - even the enlisted men.

"They got the very best of black America," Mr. Elder said.

When the 99 FS stood up at Tuskegee Institute in June 1941, few people planned on the program succeeding. However, under then-Capt. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (later to become the first African-American general officer in the U.S. Air Force), five students graduated from the first class, paving the way for many more to come.

When the 99 FS served overseas during World War II, the unit was known for its record of bringing home the bombers it escorted safely. Until last year, the legend that the "Red-tailed angels," identified by the unit's P-47s' and P-51s' distinctive red tails, had never lost a bomber (while a recent Air Force report showed the Airmen may have lost as many as 25 bombers to enemy fire during the entirety of World War II, the historians who researched this report said this in no way diminishes the incredible record of the Tuskegee Airmen).

Mr. Flanagan said the drive of the Tuskegee Airmen inspired him to earn his pilot's license alongside them, and Mr. Elder echoed a similar sentiment about his time with the 99 FS.

"They showed me they could do it," he said. Indeed, they showed the world.

For more information about the Tuskegee Airmen, call the Dallas / Ft. Worth chapter at 817-903-7528 or call Tech. Sgt. Shanton Russell at 654-4850.