Saturday, June 22, 2019

Books: "Soaring to Glory" On A Heroic Tuskegee Airman

Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman's Firsthand Account of WWII
By Philip Handleman and Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr.
Regnery History; hardcover; $29.99

The Tuskegee Airmen formed one of the most revered military units in history, a heroic group famed black aviators who fought in World War II who formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces.

Only 14 Tuskegee Airmen are still living today, and Soaring to Glory is the remarkable first-hand account of one of those 14 men, Lt. Colonel Harry T. Stewart, Jr. In the style of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, award-winning aviation writer Philip Handleman recreates the harrowing action and heart-pounding drama of Stewart's combat missions,

A New York City native who grew up in Harlem and Queens, Stewart flew 43 combat missions in Italy, including one legendary mission in which he shot down three German planes in one day. Stewart and his fellow pilots faced segregation, prejudice, and disrespect, but they still, day after day, took to the skies to battle America’s enemies.

When Stewart journeyed in a segregated rail car to Army basic training in Mississippi in 1943, he was told that "colored people aren't accepted as airline pilots" and that the "negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot." Despite this, Stewart joined the famed 332nd Fighter Group (the Red Tails), flew 43 combat missions, took down three Nazi planes over Austria, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Handleman writes of Stewart's graduation day at the Tuskegee Army Base's chapel, "The graduating cadets were called to the front individually and presented with the Army's coveted silver wings and a scroll acknowledging their new rank. When his name was called, Harry stepped forward as a member of Tuskegee's class 44-F. With a handshake and a salute, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. He was still only nineteen years old and not yet licensed to drive a car!

"Years later, when asked what it was like to be one of the relative handful of cadets to break the Army Air Forces' color barrier, Harry would say in his self-effacing way that he was too busy enjoying the flying to know that he had made history. He was one of 992 African Americans instated into the Army's flying officer corps during World War II. the skies would never be the same again!

"Outside the chapel, the newly graduated Army pilots were surrounded by family members who delighted in pinning the silver wings on their loved one's uniform. Harry, though, was by himself because his parents and siblings were not able to make the trip. Seeing him all alone, Frank N. Wright and his fiancee Anita Harris walked over and asked if anyone was coming to celebrate with him. Harry shook his head.

"With a bright smile, Anita volunteered to pin Harry's hard-earned silver wings on his uniform. She got them on straight and then gave Harry a kiss on the cheek. It buttressed Harry's feeling of belonging; his passage from cadet to officer was complete."

Stewart and his fighter group defied racially prejudiced expectations and won the first postwar Air Force-wide gunnery competition for propeller-driven fighters. Unlike white pilots, Stewart and the other Tuskegee flyers faced the extra danger that if they were shot down over enemy territory, they could not hide in plain sight with the population or expect to live. Tragically, one of Stewart's friends was shot down, captured, and lynched by a racist mob.

Handleman writes of one of Stewart's biggest victories toward the end of World War II, "Of Harry's forty-three combat missions in 1945, none clings his memory as vividly as one he flew on Easter Sunday, which also happened to be April Fool's Day. The briefing called for his element of eight Mustangs to fly cover for a formation of Liberators of the 47th Bomb Wing over the railway-marshalling yards at St. Polten, Austria. Once the bombers had completed their runs over the target area and were headed back to their bases, Harry  and his squadron mates received permission to veer west in the are of the Danube and a Luftwaffe base near the town of Wels, where they could look for targets of opportunity.

"One of the planes int he element had mechanical problems and had to drop out. Then, at five thousand feet, one of the seven remaining pilots spotted four German fighters below, not far from the air base. The Tuskegee fighter pilots easily outnumbered the Germans - until the latter sprang their trap. The men of the 301st Fighter Squadron had been lured into an ambush - and Harry suddenly found himself in his first real dogfight.

"As his survival instincts - and his training - kicked in, Harry sped to within firing range of the two German fighters nearest to his own plane. They were Focke-Wulf Fw 190D-9s, the best piston-powered fighter planes the Nazis had. Harry pulled the trigger, firing his plane's .50-caliber machine guns at the closer of the two German planes.

"As it went down in smoke and flames, Harry shadowed the second Luftwaffe plane ahead of him. The German pilot, realizing his deadly peril, resorted to high-G maneuvering in a desperate attempt to throw Harry off his tail. But to no avail; the young American fighter pilot stayed with the Fw 190 through the excruciating hard-right turn and made use of his first opportunity for a good shot. And the second German plane went down in smoke and flames.

"It was at this point that Harry suddenly went from the pursuer to the pursued. As tracer rounds whizzed past him, it was Harry's turn to try every evasive maneuver in his bag of tricks. Now, roles reversed, he dove to the deck and made another extreme right turn. With the enemy following his every move, the Fw 190 was right on the tail of the Mustang.

"And then, just as suddenly Harry was free!

"In the corner of his eye, as he craned his neck to get a look behind him, he spotted the Focke-Wulf cartwheeling across the ground, curling up, and then exploding in a ball of fire. Somehow, in the heat of the chase, the German fighter had gone from feared predator to smoldering cinders - all in the blink of an eye! Unlikely outcomes like these were in the matrix of air combat possibilities. It was not the first time that a combatant holding on for dear life escaped death's clutches while the beast ready to pounce suffered an ignominious demise...

"Harry was credited with three aerial victories for the day: for purposes of calculating the tally, it didn't matter exactly how the third enemy ship went down; just that it had crashed as a result of Harry's flying. Harry assiduously avoided asking for the third Focke-Wulf to be added to his score, but with fellow 301st pilot Carl Carey vouching for the downing (in the absence of gun camera footage), Harry's bosses chalked it up to his performance in the engagement.

"When Percy Sutton, the squadron's intel officer (later to gain prominence in New York City as the Manhattan borough president), debriefed Harry after the mission, he recognized that what Harry had done would qualify for the Distinguished Flying Cross and put in the recommendation.

"The public relations value of Harry's three kills in a day was recognized by the higher-ups at group and command headquarters. The next day Harry was posed in the cockpit of Little Coquette with three fingers raised, signifying his air-to-air victories. Behind him, standing on the P-51's wing, was his trusted crew chief Jim Shipley.

Stewart in the celebratory photo with Jim Shipley.

"Photos and press releases went out to the black press in hopes of favorable coverage that might give the war effort a shot in the arm. The New York Amsterdam News ran a laudatory article under the headline 'Corona Flyer Shoots Down Three Planes." The newspaper described the air battle as a 'wild and vicious dogfight' and quoted Harry's abbreviated description of the action. 'It was a heck of a fight. It seemed as if Jerry was all over the sky that day.'' The 'modest young flyer,' as the article called Harry, said 'I guess I was just lucky.'"

Stewart's heroism did not get the recognition he deserved in postwar America. With Soaring to Glory, his boundless courage and determination will never be forgotten.

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