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Col. Vernon V. Haywood « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

Col. Vernon V. Haywood

Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Branch of Service: Air Force, 332nd Fighter Group
Location of Service: Europe

The following article was written by one of the original graduates of the Tuskegee Institute during WWII, And They Said We Could Not Fly by Col. Vernon V. Haywood

Apparently, it had something to do with the size of the brain. I was never aware of this startling information until long after having retired from the Air Force. Reportedly, the idea grew out of a study done at the Army War College in 1925, and was subsequently used by the War Department to forestall attempts of blacks and others to join the Army Air Corps. This was one of many roadblocks during the days of “segregation by law” to prevent the progress of minorities in the armed forces and in all walks of life.

However, due to the tireless efforts of organizations like the National Urban League, the NAACP, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters plus four major black newspapers, the War Department ban on blacks entering the Army Air Corps was lifted by the summer of 1939 when the government authorized the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). I was already enrolled at one of the designated black colleges, Hampton Institute. I had followed the advice of a Hampton alumni in Raleigh, NC who had known of my interest in flying since elementary school. At age nine, I’d sneak out to the airport, sit on the edge of the field and watch the ford tri-motors and other planes take-off and land. Blacks were not welcomed on the airport grounds.

By the time the first class of black cadets (Class 42c) entered primary flight training at Tuskegee Institute in July, 1941, I was already there for a secondary course in the CPTP program having had the primary phase (Piper Club) at Hampton in early 1941. I was then qualified to take a leave of absence from Hampton to take the secondary CPTP course available only at Tuskegee in the WACO UPF aircraft. Aside from the 60 plus hours of acrobatics and precision flying, the greatest thrill and moment of pride for me was to stand on the Tuskegee campus along with many students and observe Class 42C (12 cadets and Capt. B.O. Davis, Jr.) march smartly by en route to their scheduled activities. They would form the nucleus of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first Black flying unit to see action in WWII. I wondered how many would make it through the tough program ahead – only 5 had their wings, Capt. B.O. Davis, Jr. and 4 other cadets in March, 1942.

When fully formed, the 99th after extensive training, deployed to North Africa in mid-April, 1943. After encountering racial problems in its initial assignment, the 99th was subsequently attached to the 79th Fighter Group until joining the 332nd “Red Tails” in July, 1944 in Italy.

A word or two about the training at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama–it was unique to say the least. At the outset, all the flying instructors for the two phases of training conducted, basic and advance, were white. The base commander and his staff were white. The flight instructors were all volunteers for this “unique experiment” as it was often called. Most of the instructors were also southerners and this was looked upon with suspicion especially when viewed in light of the base location deep in the heart of “Dixie” and segregation. On the whole, the instructors were pretty conscientious and easy to work with. As in many cases, those furthest from the action can often by action and/or attitude muddy the waters with little effort. A segregated cafeteria for “white officers only” and a few other reminders of color were things you would least like to remember about the Tuskegee Army Airfield.

The replacement of the base commander with the “right type” was widely-heralded by all concerned–Gen. Noel F. Parrish will always be remembered as a true Tuskegee Airman.

Training for combat for the 332nd took place at Selfridge Field in Michigan initially in P-40s. Gunnery was out of Oscoda far to the north where deer had to be chased off the field before flight in the mornings. Bears roaming throught the camp at night would often cause the most aggressive fighter pilot to unashamedly inquire of his cabin mates if anyone else needed to make a run to the central latrine/bath house located in the middle of the compound.

A last minute switch in late summer of 1943 to P-39 Aircobra’s left little time for check-out and training. The P-39 was designed for ground attack primarily and was equipped with 37mm cannons firing through the nose. The plane was quite easy to fly and in fact at times seemed like a toy. One of our pilots made the front page of the Detroit Free Press when he landed on the Detroit Mt. Clemens Highway because of low fuel. He taxied to a service station and told them to “fill it up.”

The 332nd deployment overseas went much more smoothly than that experienced by the 99th. Our first base was Montecorvino near Salerno on the west coast of Italy below Naples. The stay there was brief as we were sent up to Naples. There under the operational control of the British, we patrolled across the entrance to the harbor of Naples which was the main supply port for US Forces in Italy. The P-39 was no match for German Ju-88 Recon planes that came in low on the deck then headed out to sea knowing full well we were in no position to attack as long as he continued on a straight course.

By mid-June, 1944, the group was sent to Ramitelli on the East coast of Italy and given P-47 aircraft and a new assignment–close escort of B-24 and B-17 bombers on their missions throughout southern Europe. The P-47 short range, 450-500 miles to target limited our ability somewhat but that was taken care of when we changed planes again to P-51 which allowed the group to provide close escort all the way to such targets at Munich, Berlin and southern Poland. About the time we got the P-51, the 99th joined the group as the fourth unit making us the only Fighter Group to have four fighter squadrons in the theater.

The 332nd Fighter Group “Red Tails” reputation as an excellent close escort unit was well known by all of the bomber units in the 15th Air Force and in many instances we were requested for escort.

Four hundred-fifty Tuskegee pilots saw combat in WWII. Sixty-six were lost and 32 ended up as POWs. Some of the early “kills” of the German Me-262 jet were shared by Red Tail Pilots. Also a flight of the 332nd Fighter Squadron flying P-47s sank a destroyer off of Venice, Italy in the Adriatic.