Profiling Heroes: More Tuskegee Airmen Fighter Pilots

The Tuskegee Airmen Had to Overcome Racism for a Chance to Fly in Combat

Charles W. Dryden (1920-2008)

Born in New York City, Charles W. Dryden had a lifelong “urge to fly,” as he’d later describe. Joining the Army in 1941, he was a member of only the second graduating class of pilots with the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1943, he deployed to Africa and the Mediterranean with the 99th Pursuit Squadron, and flying his P-40 Warhawk “A-Train,” took part in the first aerial combat the Tuskegee American ever experienced.

Back in America, Dryden was stationed in Walterboro, South Carolina where they were shocked to discover that German prisoners-of-war had greater freedom and access on the racially-segregated base than the African-American servicemen. Infuriated, Dryden performed a low-level flight maneuver over the base as a protest, and was subsequently court-martialed.

Though he was not discharged from the service, late in life Dryden was adamant to keep the blemish on his record because, as he described, “A hundred years from today, I want people to know what we had to go through to say the enemy in our country was treated better than we were…” Dryden stayed in the military after World War II, flew again in Korea as a reconnaissance pilot, and retired as a Lt. Colonel with over 20 years of service.

Dryden became a professor of Air Science at Howard University, was later elected to the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, and received an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Hofstra University. Dryden was one of the first Tuskegee Airmen to write a memoir of his experiences, which he published as the book “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airmen” in 1997.

We dared not fail. On our success rode the future of Blacks in aviation.

Charles W. Dryden

Theodore Wilson (1920-2006)

Theodore Wilson was already a licensed civilian pilot when he joined the Army in 1942. Training as a Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama, the Virginia native was more familiar with the region’s harsh segregation than other cadets from northern states. Wilson earned his military wings in June 1943, one of only 22 graduating pilots in a class of 52.

Wilson deployed to Italy in April, 1944. That same month, he was shot down while on a mission to attack German ground troops during the Allied invasion at Anzio. Wilson’s engine was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and as the cockpit filled with smoke, he managed to position his P-40 aircraft over a safe area and bail out. Landing among friendly troops, he soon returned to base “without a scratch” and “perfectly calm” according to one newspaper at the time.

Ultimately, Wilson flew 60 combat missions with the 99th Fighter Squadron. His service did not end with World War II, and he flew 39 missions during the Korean War as a member of the recently de-segregated Air Force. He later became a Professor of Air Science at North Carolina A&T College and Chief Finance Officer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

After 26 years, Wilson retired as a Lt. Colonel, having earned the Air Medal and Bronze Medal during his career. As a civilian, he joined the Bank of America and worked in San Francisco, California. In 1998, Wilson received recognition from the U.S. Congress as “a role model for our youths to emulate.” He passed away in 2006, survived by his of over 60 years, Doris, two children, and three grandchildren.

I’ve listened to other Tuskegee Airmen who succeeded in the military and civilian life. I find that they were disciplined in priorities and persistence. They had a purpose in life and were driven by flexible plans and paths for the future, setting measurable goals.

Theodore Wilson

George Hardy (b. 1925)

At 95, George Hardy is one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. Born in 1925 and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Hardy joined the Army Air Forces in 1943 when he was just 17 years old. Hardy’s service closely followed his older brother’s enlistment in the Navy in 1941, but their two experiences were wildly divergent. In fact, when Hardy first considering joining the Naval branch to serve alongside his brother, their father opposed the idea, using his brother’s limited experience as a cautionary tale. “I’ll never sign for you to go into a segregated service where you can only be a mess attendant,” he said.

Over the next two years, Hardy completed basic training at Keesler Army Air Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, his first experience in the south, and went on to complete his combat training at the Walterboro Army Air Field in South Carolina. In 1945, he was deployed to Italy, where he flew 21 combat missions, the majority of them escorting bombers to their targets.

After the war ended, Hardy went back to Tuskegee to train other pilots, but was recalled in 1948 to serve in the Korean conflict. As part of the 19th Bomb Group he flew a B-29 bomber for 45 combat missions over Korea. Even then, racial integration was still in its infancy and there were senior officers who chafed at the idea of allowing an African American into the co-pilot’s seat. In May of 1950, a new squadron commander took over and pulled Hardy from the flight crew on what would have been his seventh mission just before take-off. The plane was later shot down, leaving Hardy feeling conflicted. Some thought the commander had inadvertently saved his life, but Hardy wondered if he could have helped keep his crew in the air had he been onboard.

Hardy went on to serve once more in the Vietnam War, where he flew 70 night missions piloting a C-119 gunship, using infrared technology to destroy supply routes and convoys in Laos and Cambodia. All told, Hardy served 30 years, from 1943-1971 and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Education was one of the big items that allowed us to succeed at Tuskegee because when they gave you a manual, you were able to read it, to learn it and just get ahead. So when I talk to kids in school, I emphasize this idea of learning, of reading, writing and arithmetic.

George Hardy

William H. Holloman III (1924-2010)

William H. Holloman was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and dreamed of flying even as a young boy. At the age of four, he would spend his days at a nearby airfield – a two-mile walk from home – watching planes take off and land. Enamored with flying, Holloman would see his dreams come true, and he would make his mark on history in doing so.

Becoming a Tuskegee Airmen, Holloman deployed overseas in 1945 and flew combat missions in his P-51 Mustang. “You heard about getting shot at, seeing the newsreels,” Holloman would explain. but the first day it really happened and soon as we crossed the Alps, the antiaircraft stuff was popping in the air. I said, ‘What am I doing here?? I want to go home.’ But I think we were too busy to be scared.”

During his time in Italy, Holloman became acquainted with white bomber pilots and crews whom the Tuskegee Airmen were tasked with protecting on escort missions. With their specific commitment to “stick with the bombers” rather than chase enemy fighters away from the formation, the bomb crews felt especially indebted to the Black pilots. Together, they’d share their life stories of over food and spirits between missions.

Still in the service at the start of the Korean War, Holloman once again answered the call of duty and made history once more, this time as the first Black helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He would also serve during the Vietnam War before retiring in 1972.

Following his retirement, Holloman earned degrees in business administration from the University of Maryland and in history from the University of Washington. A member of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., he helped to tell the squadron’s story to the world in the form of everything from museum exhibits to acting as an advisor on Lucasfilm’s Red Tails.

I thought fighter pilots were the knights of the air…Someone told me that the newsreel at the movies was going to show some footage from the Battle of Britain. I’d break all records getting to the theater, just to see that little footage.

William H. Holloman III
Watch "Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War"

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