The photographic images are haunting: Black pilots striding across the tarmac, heading for planes in which they’d be fighting for the Allies in World War II. It was an era of strong racism, and putting blacks in the pilot’s seats of military planes was considered a radical move.
Movies such as “Tuskegee Airmen” and “Red Tails” have kept alive the legends of the nation’s first black military pilots, who flew with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and many of them fought in World War II.
One of those Tuskegee Airmen, R.T. Lee, will be in Cambria on Thursday, April 21, to share his experiences in a free presentation to be followed by a showing of the 1995 “Tuskegee Airmen” film, starring Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The event, which was delayed a week, will be at the Legion Club of American Legion Post No. 432. Tickets to the show are free, and are available at the clubhouse, behind the Cambria Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. Seating is limited.
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Among the invitees to the event are several dozen students from Coast Union High School and Santa Lucia Middle School.
Lee also is to be honored at a separate Thursday night dinner (Mary Woeste’s pot roast) to be served earlier than usual, at 5:45 p.m. The presentation is to begin at 6:45 p.m. For dinner reservations, call Lesli Murdoch at 423-4856 by Wednesday, April 20.
At the event, the Legion will raffle off two DVDs of “Red Tails” and two of “Tuskegee Airmen,” each one signed by Lee.
According to Lee’s wife of more than 50 years, Madeline Lee, the Tuskegee Airmen were initially sent to North Africa for interdiction against the Germans by strafing and bombing trains, building, moving convoys, etc. They were then transferred to Italy where their primary mission was to provide protective escorts to the American bombers.
She told Legion representative Ron Waltman that her husband flew the B-46 bomber over China, Burma and other Far Eastern countries.
Here, in R.T. Lee’s own words, he describes some of the experiences during his more than 26 years in the military:
Right after his high school graduation in Ohio, “I enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1943.” He passed his tests with high scores, and was “placed in the Army Air Corps.”
He took basic military training at Keesler Field, Miss. “Being in the South, and especially being in Mississippi, was very challenging,” he recalled, “with many incidents of racial discrimination.”
The principles I was taught at Tuskegee helped me rise above the problems we encountered.
R.T. Lee, U.S. Army veteran
Lee then took his pilot training at Tuskegee Institute, Ala., a school for blacks.
“Before World War II, there was very little hope of a black person to be able to fly in the Army Air Corps,” he wrote. “The experiment to train black pilots began at Tuskegee. … They really took us through the paces and made us work twice as hard to prove ourselves.
“The principles I was taught at Tuskegee helped me rise above the problems we encountered,” Lee said. “Two important things that stuck with me were to always aim high and never quit.”
Lee trained in the PT 17, BT 13 and the AT6 planes before graduating from flight school. After graduating, he then “was transitioned to multi-engine transports and sent to India, where I ended up flying the C-146 and the C-109 (converted B24). We transported gasoline and material, sometimes over the hump,” (the legendary Himalayas, the mountains that separate Burma and China).
He mustered out after World War II, and soon thereafter re-enlisted in the U.S. Fair Force, working in transport and personnel. He retired in November 1969 at Oxnard Air Force Base.
The Lees live in Camarillo and have four children.
Kim and Leslie Eady of Cambria Shores Inn are providing free lodging for the couple and family members, and Ramon and Maria Elena de Alba of Creekside Gardens are providing free breakfast for them Friday, April 22.
Tuskegee Airmen stats
▪ Flew 1,578 combat missing and 179 bomber escort missions. Although at the end of the movie it states they never lost a bomber, subsequent research has shown they lost only 27 bombers on seven missions, compared with an average of 46 among the other 15 Air Force P-51 groups.
▪ 112 enemy aircraft were destroyed in the air and 150 others on the ground.
▪ 950 rail cars, trucks and other motor vehicles were destroyed.
▪ The Airmen put one enemy destroyer out of action.
▪ 40 boats and barges were destroyed.