Driving the rural byways of South Carolina, we watched families gathering around their backyard barbecues and saw lonely cemeteries under live oaks that had watched the centuries slip past. Coming into Waltersboro, we both called it out when we saw the sign.
“The Tuskegee Airmen!”
Known for their valor in the skies over Europe during World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were called the “black bird men” by the Germans. I’d always associated Tuskegee with Alabama in my mind. This memorial at the county airport in Walterboro corrected those thoughts.
While Tuskegee, Alabama was the birthplace of the program that enabled African-American soldiers to train as military pilots for the first time in American history, it was not the only training ground.
More than five hundred pilots in the program came to Walterboro Army Air Field from Tuskegee Army Air Field to train for duty in World War II. They already knew how to fly. They were here to learn advanced aerial combat training.
This was 1944 in the segregated South. Despite their skills as pilots, they were not allowed to mingle with white enlisted men. Instead, their new quarters consisted of “old ramshackle one-story barracks that looked to be vintage 1914.”
In the “Jim Crow” South, separate quarters, and a separate USO and dining hall, were the rule of the day. White officers refused to associate with the black officers and moved their officers club off-base to an all-white country club, despite federal orders against segregation in the military.
Despite these conditions, these pilots were at the top of their game, flying maneuvers against Marine pilots from nearby Parris Island. They trained on the P-39 Airacobra, P-47 Thunderbolt, and the P-40 Kittyhawk. After 60 hours of combat practice, each class of pilots shipped out to Europe. Class 44-F joined the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy.
In addition to being a training ground for pilots, the airfield served as a POW camp for German prisoners of war and as a training ground for camoflauge warfare.
Thanks to the Hiram E. Mann Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, this memorial will educate others who take the time to stop, learn, and especially today, reflect on the sacrifices these pilots made for all Americans in the face of such ostracism in their own land.