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Viewpoints: Buffalo’s Tuskegee Airmen played a key role in World War II

By Georgia Burnette

“In January 1941, one day after Yancey Williams, a Howard University student, threatened to sue the secretary of war to consider his Air Corps cadet-training application, the Army announced the formation of the first Black Air Corps unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.”
– “American Patriots,” by Gail Buckley

Six decades later, in February 2005, three members of the Tuskegee Airmen – Louis W. Johnson, Leeland N. Jones Jr. and Rudolph Laster – were honored by the Republicans of Color at the Charlotte Lewis Scholarship Awards Breakfast held in Bethel AME Church in Buffalo. These honorable gentlemen were recognized for their contributions as World War II veterans and members of the first all-black group of military aviators in U.S. history. I had the honor of interviewing them after the church commemoration.

Originally, they said, the airmen were given several nicknames: the Lonely Eagles, indicative of their single flying status (their favorite); Red-Tail Angels, by American bomber crews, for the red tailpieces on their silver-gray P-51 Mustangs; Black Birdmen, by the Germans; Eleanor Roosevelt’s N------, by some Americans, (because the first lady continually championed equality within the armed forces); and several other offensive names.

It is a little-known fact that the one-man pursuit flying squadron, as opposed to a bomber unit, was formed to accommodate the mandates of segregation. Bomber training would have forced the Army to provide separate training facilities for white bombardiers, navigators and gunners. It is no surprise, therefore, that initially the instructors of the 99th Pursuit Squadron were all white officers.

The all-black units were credited with over 15,500 combat missions in World War II and earned over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their achievements.

In his book, “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman,” Lt. Col. Charles Dryden said, “For every black pilot there were 10 other civilian or military black men and women on ground support duty. Many of these men and women remained in the military service during the post-World War II era and spearheaded the integration of the armed forces.”

Each of the three men honored in this article was trained in a different military occupational specialty. Johnson was a pilot, Jones was a signal corpsman and cryptographer, and Laster was an expert in map reconstruction and aerial photography. Each was an essential part of the Tuskegee experience.

Louis W. Johnson

Johnson, a tall, lean Texan from San Antonio, served in the Army for three years before finally being accepted as an aviation cadet in 1943, graduating at the head of his class in 1944. He fondly recalled the three-month period of combat-readiness training as an airman.

“We flew all day, every day, and many, many nights. We practiced night flying, dive-bombing, aerial bombing, blind and low-level flying, mock dogfights and navigation via instruments,” Johnson said. “It was scary, but we lived to tell about it and felt ready for combat. That training prepared me for the several times my plane malfunctioned and I nearly lost my life. They taught us well!”

Off-duty activities kept him, for the most part, on base because of segregation inherent with the times. Having been brought up in the South, Johnson was well aware of the attitudes of whites toward blacks. (And nothing would change until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces.)

In 1945, the collapse of Germany and the dropping of the atomic bomb canceled Johnson’s orders for an overseas assignment. He was discharged from active duty in 1949 and transferred to the Air Force Reserves. He lost no time in entering Hampton Institute to complete his college education, and later enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to study law.

In 1958, Johnson moved to Buffalo and accepted positions with the State Commission Against Discrimination, and as assistant director of industrial relations with the Buffalo Urban League. He retired from the Erie County Department of Social Services in 1988.

“It’s been a wonderful life,” he recalled with a smile, although he was never able to relocate to Norfolk, Va., to be near his children and start anew his hobby of painting.

Johnson died on July 21, 2006.

Rudolph Laster

Laster, who hails from Fairmont, W.Va., was drafted into the Army in 1943, and after basic training, attended school specializing in map reconstruction. He joined the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Mich., but was transferred to Kentucky in 1944. He vividly recalled that move.

“In 1944, pilots and other officers returning from the European Theater of War to Selfridge were frustrated and dismayed with restrictions placed on their activities. Specifically, they were angered that segregation prevented them from joining the Officer’s Club designated for whites only,” Laster said. “Their protests of these and other blaring inequities resulted in the famous overnight transfer of the group from Michigan to Godman Field, Kentucky. I was a part of all this, and remember that we left by train, plane, jeep and trucks. It was a journey I’ll never forget!”

“At Godman Field, fighter pilots were undergoing training to become bomber pilots. There I received instruction in aerial photography, becoming the fifth member of a medium bomber crew in the 499th Bomber Squadron. The team consisted of pilot, co-pilot, gunners and aerial photographer,” he said. “It was my responsibility to mount the camera in the bomb  bay, and after a sortie, process the film and lay it out into a map so the pilots could determine how accurate they had been in their mission.”

“It’s been a wonderful life,” Laster said. “My last duty station was in Guam, but after 10 months, the atomic bomb was dropped and the war ended. We were given a choice of remaining on the island or returning to the States. I chose to return home, and shortly thereafter, I was discharged and returned to West Virginia.”

By 1950 he had moved to Buffalo, finding work at the Chevrolet plant on River Road in Tonawanda. While there, he became vice president of UAW Local 774, resulting in a good bit of travel throughout the United States.

“In 1963, I was lucky enough to be present with other members of the local in Washington, D.C., for Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I didn’t know at the time it was to be such a historical landmark.”

In 1982, Laster retired from Chevrolet with 30 years of service. He is thoroughly enjoying his retirement.

Leeland N. Jones Jr.

Jones, a native Buffalonian, was no stranger to the discrimination of the times. He lost a nomination to the Naval Academy in 1939 when the physician flunked him on his physical examination. According to Buckley’s book, “Under orders, doctors routinely failed all black Air Corps applicants” and this practice appeared to extend to all services throughout the military.

Nevertheless, the Army found Jones physically fit, and he entered service as a private in 1943. Within six months, Jones quickly rose to the rank of first sergeant.

A “routine” incident of discrimination occurred when Jones was traveling by train from the Town of Ontario to Fort Bliss, Texas, with 35 soldiers. As they stopped along the way to eat, he presented his military orders for meals, but was told the troops had to enter the restaurant through the rear of the building. Jones checked with his men and when all refused, the entire group returned to the train. For the rest of his life, he appreciated and respected the Red Caps on that train for feeding his men throughout that long, hot, dusty trip.

Jones’ repeated requests for officer candidate training fell upon deaf ears until he reached Monmouth, N.J., which also operated an Officer Candidate School. In a last desperate attempt to seek admission, he requested an appointment with the commanding general, and was given “five minutes only.” He had come fully prepared with all of his important papers, including his nominations to West Point and the Naval Academy, his rapid promotion to first sergeant and records of specialized training in infantry and artillery. As he concluded his remarks and prepared to leave, the general, having completed a cursory review of the documents, said quietly, “Sit down.”

At this point, the general re-examined the papers in greater detail, then instructed him to report to the OCS immediately. “Your orders will be waiting for you there.”

Jones’ specialized training in an artillery battalion, the Signal Corps, cryptography security and officer’s training school prepared him for a singular experience with the Tuskegee Airmen.

He joined the 499th Bomber Squadron, a composite group of Tuskegee Airmen, at Godman Field as signal officer and cryptographer.

However, it was a small base and lacked the proper equipment to fully utilize his skills. While there, he served with Chappie James, who later became the only black four-star general. Jones flew with the squadron for eight months, before returning to civilian life in 1946.

He returned to Buffalo and completed his last year of college, graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1948. Jones sought political office, and served two terms as supervisor of the Fifth Ward and two terms as city councilman of the Ellicott District. During his final term of office, he was elected president pro-tem of the Council.

Jones was a founding member and past commander of the Bennett-Wells Post of the American Legion. In 1985, he retired as assistant vice president of Erie Community College, but continued as associate minister of Bethel AME Church. An active member of his fraternity, he traveled with his wife for family visits and was well along with writing his memoirs.

Following his wife’s death in 2006, Jones moved to Germantown, Md., and resided with his daughter, Carlita Perkins, until his death on Aug. 13, 2009.

Georgia Burnette is a retired nurse educator/administrator. She writes about African-Americans in Buffalo and Western New York.

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