I grew up with an ingenious jack-of-all-trades, railroad refrigeration mechanic, history-loving father, who always cheered for the underdogs. In part due to him, I have always had a fascination with airplanes and spaceships.
In 2015, when I first heard about the “Tuskegee Airmen”, also called “Red Tails”, I was curious to learn more about these elite, cream-of-the-crop, WWII pilots. The more I learn, the more I am inspired by their character, courage, and determination. They rose above both the rigors of becoming WWII pilots and the racism of the times as the first African American pilots in the US Armed Services. They truly are an inspiration!
Here are some interesting facts about the Tuskegee Airmen with 5 Kentucky connections.
One Have you ever passed by the sign on Interstate Highway I-75/I-71 in Kentucky that reads “Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Highway” and it made you wonder? Did you ever think why is a sign related to Tuskegee, which is a city in Alabama, on a sign in Kentucky?
The state of Kentucky was first to name a portion of a highway system in honor of the Tuskegee pilots (officially the United States Army Air Corps. 332nd Fighter Group). At least 10 of the original Tuskegee Airmen cadets called Kentucky home, including others mentioned below who played key roles in the success of actualizing the first African American pilots into a then-segregated U.S. Armed Services.
In August 2007, the section of Highway I-75 in Fayette County was designated the “Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Trail” and the trail was extended to the entire length of I-75 in Kentucky in July 2010. Fayette County was chosen first because it is the home to the state’s aviation museum and was the impetus of Ron Spriggs and the Lexington Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, i.e., the Brigadier/General Noel F. Parrish Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. The group’s mission is to designate the entire I-75 corridor that runs 1,787 miles through six states with standardized signs in honor of the service of the Tuskegee Airmen. They also are encouraging states west to replicate this honor especially on I-80 as an east/west passage.
TWO At least 10 Tuskegee pilot graduates called Kentucky home. According to the Tuskegee Institute Pilot Graduate List the following were from KY: Julius W. Calloway (Louisville), Milton T. Hall (Owensboro), Jose R. Elfalan (Prospect), John S. Harris (Richmond), John S. Sloan (Louisville), Thomas W. Smith (Lebanon), Frank D. Walker (Richmond), Merrill Ray Ross (Pineville), Washington D. Ross (Ashland), and Dudley M. Watson (Frankfort). An additional Kentucky connection is that one of the oldest Kentucky airfields, the Godman Airfield in Ft. Knox, Kentucky served for a time as a training base for the 477th Tuskegee Bombardment Group.
In 1941 a new fighter squadron of all black volunteer pilots was formed in the segregated U.S. Army Air Corps, based at Tuskegee, Alabama. This experimental squadron of all black pilots was set up to fail. The base at Tuskegee not only included the pilots, but also 16-19,000 men and women support staff (exact totals and many names are unknown due to the lack of record-keeping). These support staff included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance workers, instructors, mechanics, medical staff, and all other personnel who kept the planes in the air. Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen or DOTA are ALL personnel involved in the Tuskegee pilot experiment or experience who have documentation. In addition to the above-mentioned pilots there were also other Kentuckian DOTA ground support.
Between 1941 and 1945 approximately 1000 cadets received pilot certifications, with about 350 seeing combat in WWII in the European theater. The Tuskegee Airmen pilots were assigned as bomber escorts and conducted strafing missions – missions that attack targets repeatedly with bombs or machine-gun fire from low-flying aircraft. They were so successful at leading bomber pilots through enemy fire that pilots began to request them.
As the main mission of the black pilots was to guard the other Air Force Bomber planes, they painted the tails of their planes red to easily identify them. This is how they got the nicknames, the “Red-Tail Angels” or “Red Tails”.
Three The first African American woman to receive both a U.S.-issued commercial pilot’s and a mechanic’s license was also from Kentucky. Willa Beatrice Brown-Chappell was born in Glasgow, KY in 1906 and died in 1992. She was a pioneer in black aviation, a businesswoman, and a fighter for equal rights. She was co-owner of the first flight school owned and operated by blacks – the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. She was an instructor and taught approximately 2,000 cadets as pilots, nearly 200 of whom she trained went on to become part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute, better known as Tuskegee Airmen.
Willa was the first black woman to run for a Congressional seat. Due to the many aviation accomplishments in her lifetime, in 2002 Willa was named one of Women in Aviation’s 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation and Aerospace. In 2003 she was inducted into the Aviation Museum of Kentucky’s Hall of Fame. A rendering by Ron Spriggs and Prof. Bobby Scroggins of the bust of her was unveiled at the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda in February 2007 and is now installed at the Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort, KY.
Four Brigadier General Noel Francis Parrish was born in 1909 in Versailles, Kentucky and died in 1982. He moved to Rice University, entered the Army Calvary (with real horses) as a Private and later became a pilot. In 1942 he became the Commandant of the black pilot cadet training at Tuskegee Institute. Although he was a white commander, because of his leadership he earned the respect of the black cadets for judging and treating the men on merit and not skin color and thus is considered a respected member of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Parrish was thrust into the midst of racial tensions that the program had stirred up. He dealt with scrutiny from his peers and superiors in the US Army Air Corp that the black men were not fit to fly simply based on their skin color. And at the same time, he had to contend with the surrounding communities in the South who were unsupportive of the program, as well as dealing with Jim Crow laws. Nevertheless, Parrish, steadfast in his determination to base judgement on merit and performance, led the underdog Tuskegee pilot experiment and the airmen it turned out to become an invaluable resource for the U.S. during the European theater air war in WWII. In honor of Kentucky’s Tuskegee leader, located in Lexington near his hometown is The Brigadier General Noel F. Parrish Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
Five One of the Tuskegee Airman named his P-51 Mustang airplane, “Miss Kentucky State” in honor of Kentucky State (formerly College) University’s Homecoming Queen, Maggie Cathryn Clement. Kentucky State University is recognized as one of the Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU). According to Ron Spriggs, of the Ron Spriggs Exhibit of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Crew Chief Staff Sergeant Marcellus Smith of Henderson County, Kentucky was permitted to paint his chosen name on the starboard side of the plane. He chose to pay homage to his secret pin-up girl, Ms. Clement, despite the fact that she was unaware of his admiration.
The P51 Mustang airplane was considered the Cadillac of single-seat fighter airplanes during WWII, with a cruising speed of 425 mph. On the port side (left) of the plane the pilot, 1/Lt. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. from New York, had painted his daughter’s name “Bunnie”, and it was uncommon for planes to bear two names. So, Lieutenant Brown’s Crew Chief, Smith, painted “Miss Kentucky State” on the starboard side (right). This plane saw action in Italy as part of the 332nd Fighter Group, as part of a mission over Germany where Lt. Brown shot down one of the first German jets.
In conclusion, the men and women of the Tuskegee pilot experiment or experience have many connections to Kentucky and importance to our nation’s history. As a result of the character, courage, determination, and success of the Tuskegee Airmen and the support staff involved in the experimental black pilot program, they became the impetus which forced the eventual integration of the US Armed Forces in 1949, opening many new doors for African Americans. It has taken time to recognize, honor, and reward these brave trailblazers. On March 29th, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush. The ceremony at the Capital Rotunda in Washington, D.C. was attended by approximately 350 living Airmen or their widows, five of whom were from Kentucky. President Bush, raised by a WWII veteran, raised his hand to respectfully salute the Tuskegee veterans as officers, declaring the Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars — one in aiding military success overseas and another in overcoming segregation in the armed forces in their homeland.
For more information visit the national Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. website, whose mission is to “focus on honoring the accomplishments and perpetuating the history of African Americans who participated in air crew, ground crew and operations support training in the Army Air Corps during WWII.” In addition, there are over 50 local chapters with membership open to anyone. The Brigadier General Noel F. Parrish Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and Greater Cincinnati Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. also have their own websites and Facebook pages. They provide scholarships and grants to children and promote learning about aviation, among other community activities.
I dedicate this Blog to, Myron “Mike” Wilson, Tuskegee Airmen, 44-D-SE, 4/15/1944, 2nd Lt/Flt. Officer, from Danville IL and his son, Norman, who first introduced me to these valiant men.
–Notable Kentucky African Americans Database: https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/
–The Greater Cincinnati Chapter Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (GCCTAI) pamphlet provided by Mr. Darryl L. Shirley
–Mr. Ron Spriggs’ website of Tuskegee Airmen Resources and downloadable pamphlets (https://www.rseta.org/pdf-dwld.html) Ron is the Executive Director of RSETA and Past-president of the Kentucky Chapter of TAI.
If you want to learn more, I invite you to check out the wonderful resources we have for all ages on the topic of Tuskegee Airmen at our Kenton County Public Library. Additionally, if you have a Kenton County Library Card you can access a multitude of other DVDs and books on our free online database called Hoopla.
Are you interested in researching your family history? The Kenton County Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Department can help! Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, call us at (859) 962-4070, or visit us online.
This blog was written by Deborah S. Wesley, Library Associate, Local History and Genealogy Department, Biology B.S., and Masters in Toxicology, was a scientist on the Columbia STS-107 Space Shuttle Recovery Project in 2003 and loves dachshunds and raising and releasing Monarch butterflies.