From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
In 1941, America's skies were segregated, like everything else in the nation. Though the U.S. was at war with Japan and Nazi Germany, the Army Air Corps refused to train black pilots.
It took an act of Congress to change all that. So then, the 99th Fighter Squadron was born. Their flyers had to have college degrees and they flew PT-17 Stearman planes with distinctive red tails.
In commemoration of Veterans Day, we asked one of these Tuskegee airmen, Alexander Jefferson of Detroit, Michigan, to tell his story. Jefferson reveled in the flying lessons he took near Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. He was quickly deployed to Italy and sent into battle.
His unit of smaller fighter planes escorted larger Allied bombers into enemy territory, protecting them from Axis fighters. They never lost a bomber. But on his 19th mission, Jefferson was shot down by a German anti-aircraft gun and spent the next year in a Nazi prison camp.
Ironically, he was given more respect as a POW than as a black man in America. This is the story of Alexander Jefferson in his own words.
Mr. ALEXANDER JEFFERSON (99th Fighter Squadron, U.S. Army Air Corps): I'm a World War I brat. I played model airplanes of Fokkers and Neiuports and read all the magazines about World War I. And I wanted to be a world war pilot.
Young black kid - we were Negroes then. No, we were colored. In my exuberance, knowing that I was segregated and discriminated, I still wanted to fly an airplane.
In the third and fourth grades at Newberry School in Detroit, I would cut school and walk to an airfield, Grass(ph) Strip(ph), to help the guys at this airfield with menial tasks - cleaning, washing, service airplanes - these small airplanes. And that's where I got my first ride in the back seat of a Waco, having fun.
If my mother ever knew that I cut school, she would have turned me upside down and backward.
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During my senior year, the Army Air Corps had sent Army personnel to Clark University, seeking volunteers for the Army Air Corps. When I graduated in June '42, came back to Detroit, went down to the - to the armory to take the test,
Weight was 116 minimum. I weighed 115 and 2 or 3 ounces. He said go downstairs and drink some water and eat some bananas. I went downstairs - drank some water, ate a couple of bananas and came back and I weighed 116 and 2 ounces.
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the cumulus clouds. That was the greatest experience of my life. Up and down, around, behind, following the guy in front of you over this cumulus clouds - big puffy white clouds against a blue sky.
After that, we would follow the leader across trees, up over Martin Lakes, north of Tuskegee and skimming across the top of trees through farmers' backyards, close enough to see deer, scampering down through the - on the ground.
Oh, that was fun. But just the exhilaration of flying and - it was too much to experience.
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We're shipped it from Naples across Italy to Romatelli over on the heel. The strips and made a runway. We parked at the end of the runway, watching the P47s takeoff.
And a P47 took off, got to the end of the runway, pulled up into a stall, shimmered and went straight in, exploded on contact. That was our experience of introduction to the 332nd Fighter Group in combat.
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This is June 1944. The Americans have just liberated Rome. Our job is to escort these bombers. It's B17s and B24s are going to Germany. They're 21,000/22,000 feet up to the target.
back and another group would take over and bring them back home.
I was trying to explain to someone, if you look up at 12 o'clock to the horizon contrails of bombers going to Germany. And fighters all over the sky. Bombers in front of you, bombers behind you. It was unbelievable.
Sometimes we'd take the B17s to the target. You look up ahead, there's a big black cloud over the target.
The black cloud would extend from 15,000 feet to 25,000 feet, round like a hockey puck - flak. And the bombers would fly straight into that black cloud and sometimes we got caught in that flak.
Where it was so close so they would actually hit the plane and actually knock the plane out of control. It sounds like somebody would take pebbles and throw it on a tin roof.
If you're that close and those things hit your plane, blowing holes, knocking holes in your wings and in your fuselage, you were too darn close.
Many times, we'd see the bombers go into the flak, I doubt the bottom of the cloud would come a bomber, half on fire, wing blown off. You'd hear the radio: bail out, damn it. Bail out. Bail out.
And out of this plane would come one cloud, one chute - you'd see a guy come out. And another guy came out. And all of a sudden, boosh(ph), explode.
First time was realization - I saw eight men die. I got sick. I'm sitting up there at 24,000 feet. And I got sick inside that oxygen mask. I puked and vomited. First time I ever got sick in an airplane.
over and use your 50-calibers and shoot it up and destroy it. That's what we did.
The guys went in, down on the deck, 400 miles an hour. The first 12 guys got through okay. The side of the cliff was lighted up with anti-aircraft fire. We got down within a thousand yards, 1,500 yards, 800 yards, 600 yards. I got hits on the target and I went across the top of the target at treetop height.
Something says, boom - I looked up and there's a hole on top of the canopy. And I pulled up off of the deck and fire came out of the floor, because the shell had come up through the floor in front of the stick.
Out of the nine months of training, we never had one minute on training on how to get out in an airplane. I remember the tail going by and I pulled the D-ring on a parachute. Ordinarily, they'd say count one, two, three, pull it. No, I pulled that son of a gun, bang, right then. When the parachute popped, I'm in the trees and quite naturally the guys who shot me down were sitting over there about 200 or 300 yards away.
The German interrogator came down and said 332nd Fighter Group, Negroes, red tails. I looked at his book and said what the heck. He opened it up and thumbed through it, had all the pictures of all the classes that had graduated before me. They had all my marks at Clark University. They had my high school marks at Chadsey High School in Detroit. They knew how much taxes my dad paid on his house in Detroit. They knew more about me than I knew about myself.
When I got to Stalag Luft III, which is 80 miles east of Berlin, I was treated as a POW with all the rights and privileges of an American officer. No segregation, no discrimination. I was only there four months or five months when the Russians started coming west and the Germans put us out on the road and we walked 80 kilometers, temperature - 20 below zero.
Further west we wound up at Stalag 7A. I was there for about four months until April where Patton's Third Army liberated the camp I was in.
The next day after that, somebody said, hey Jeff, there's a place down there with a lot of dead people. I said what are you talking about? He said man, they've gotten people down there stacked up like cordwood. So we got a jeep and we went down to see this place, Dachau.
The ovens were still warm. The odor of human flesh is something I'll never forget. A table, 20 or 30-feet long covered with amalgam and gold teeth where they cut off the hair for seat cushions.
Man's inhumanity to man.
Coming down the gangplank by boat from London - a boat across from the Le Havre to London. When you walked - (Unintelligible) down the gangplank in New York City, a big sign in front of you says: whites to the right, colored to the left. And a white soldier down at the bottom indicated whites to the right and niggers to the left. Coming back home - racist segregation.
Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks - I am part of the Civil Rights Movement. America - United States: best country in the world. You don't like it? Leave it. The only obligation, make it better. It ain't perfect but it's home.
CHIDEYA: That was Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson in his own words. If you'd like to know more about Mr. Jefferson's story, he has written it all down. His autobiography is called Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free, and he turns 85 next week.
Coming up, we pay tribute to 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley who influenced generations of journalists and viewers. Plus, Republican Party Chair Ken Mehlman steps down.
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This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
In commemoration of Veterans Day, Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson describes his service in World War II and the difficult adjustment that followed. Note: This segment contains language some might find offensive.
In commemoration of Veterans Day, Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson describes his service in World War II and the difficult adjustment that followed when he returned to a segregated United States.
In 1941, America's skies were segregated, like everything else in the nation. Though the United States and its allies were at war with the Axis powers of Japan and Nazi Germany, the Army Air Corps refused to train black pilots.
It took an act of Congress to change that, and the legend of the Tuskegee Airmen was born.
More than 1,000 black college graduates where trained to become fighter pilots at Tuskegee University in Alabama during World War II. One of those pilots was Jefferson, a Detroit native and graduate of Clark University.
Jefferson was part of a 332nd Fighter Group sent to Italy to escort Allied bombers on flights over enemy territory. He and his fellow pilots tenaciously attacked enemy fighters trying to shoot down the bombers before they reached their targets. They never lost a plane to any enemy fighters.
But on his 19th mission over Germany, Jefferson was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and spent the next year in Nazi prison camps. Ironically, he was given more respect by the Germans as a prisoner of war than as a black man back home in America.
His prison camp was finally liberated in April 1945 by soldiers from Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army. Jefferson witnessed first-hand the atrocities at a Nazi prison camp -- corpses stacked like wood, piles of hair to be used for seat cushions, the stench of human flesh, and a long table full of gold teeth. The ovens used to cremate prisoners were still warm.
Coming off the troop ship on his return to the United States, he was shocked to see that racism and segregation were still part of the fabric of American life -- there were signs at the end of the gangplank indicating "whites" and "colored" processing areas.
"Malcolm [X], Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks... I am part of the civil rights movement," says Jefferson, who turns 85 next week.
"America is the best country in the world. You don't like it? Leave it. The only obligation? Make it better. It ain't perfect, but it's home."
Jefferson wrote about getting shot down over Germany and his experiences as a prisoner of war in his memoir, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW.
Note: This segment contains language some might find offensive.