As part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, the Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing Aviation Museum in Mesa is hosting an event to honor America’s first all Black aerial unit, the Tuskegee Airmen, and mark the premiere of Lucasfilm’s “Red Tails.”
The event takes place Saturday, according to the museum, as a tribute to the all Black World War II air crews, formally known as the 332nd Fighter and 477th Bombardment groups of the U.S. Army Air Corps. The event will provide an opportunity to hear members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen speak, watch a documentary and preview of the new movie, and participate in memoriam.
The airmen served at a time when the military was notably segregated, and discrimination rampant nationwide. Despite the lack of support from their fellow countrymen, about 995 Black pilots graduated from a military flight school in Tuskegee, Ala., from 1942 to 1946. More than 1,500 men and women trained around the U.S. served in the air group as cooks, administrative and flight control personnel, mechanics and other crew members, according to the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen.
The 332nd Fighter Group was the only operational unit and later coined the name, “Red Tails” after the tails of their North American P-51 Mustangs were painted red for identification purposes.
“We provided exemplary escort service to bombers,” former pilot Dr. Thurston Gaines said. “The red tails denoted that it (the escort) was all Black.”
Gaines, 89, received his wings in August of 1944 and flew in the 99th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group based in Europe. He flew 25 missions from Italy to Germany escorting bombers and strafing enemy targets. On his last mission near the end of the war, he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Gaines was imprisoned in Germany for about two months. He was repatriated in 1945 and went on to become a first lieutenant, bomber flight instructor, medical doctor and a substitute school teacher.
“I am a person of color, and that’s the way I am,” Gaines said.
The decorated Army pilot has retired to Goodyear. He hopes to attend the commemorative event but may have to tend to his ill wife, Jacqueline.
Another former Tuskegee cadet, Asa D. Herring, Jr., 85, will be attending Saturday’s tribute event.
Herring attended college at the Tuskegee institute but due to his young age, was not inducted into the Aircore until December 1944.
“Training was quite hard.” Herring said. “You could only fight the system so much because you could be eliminated for anything. We stuck together and tried to help people who were having difficulties.”
The war ended before Herring graduated from flight school. He opted to leave the Army in 1946 partly due to discrimination. After his discharge, he attended college with Martin Luther King, Jr. and later joined the fully integrated Air Force. He served in England, Korea, Germany and Vietnam. He retired to Phoenix as a decorated and honored pilot in 1970 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Gaines believes that the tribute, movie, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrate people of color.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. championed peaceful resistance and the creation of equal opportunity.” Gaines said.
The movie “Red Tails” premiers Jan. 20 and is a commendation to the men who battled enemies abroad and prejudice at home that was reflected in the laws and attitudes of the time, according to the official movie website.
The annual event will be held at Falcon Field Airport’s CAF Arizona Wing Aviation Museum, located at 2017 N. Greenfield Rd in Mesa. Admission into the event and museum starts at 10 a.m. and tickets are $25 per person.
Angela, a senior studying journalism at Arizona State University, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org