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Untold Stories

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A Delco man recalls what it was like to be a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during WWII
Luther H. Smith jokes that he can’t even introduce himself in five minutes, let alone give a speech. That is the task before him as grand marshal of the Veterans Day Parade in Media on Friday. But Smith is to be forgiven his propensity to go on some, since his story is history. He is a Tuskegee Airman, and one of only 450 black military aviators who flew in World War II in Europe.

Asked to start his story, Smith goes back more than 75 years, far from his home in Radnor Township, to his childhood days in Des Moines, Iowa, and a fascination with Charles Lindbergh’s accomplishments.

"I was 7 years old in 1927 when Lindbergh made his solo flight. I was motivated by his skill, daring, dedication and desire for the unknown,’’ said Smith. "I was not a large person, not athletic; I had no musical skills. So what I decided was to do something achievable with the attributions and skills I had. And there were very few opportunities in those days for us,’’ Smith said of African-Americans.

Fate stepped into Smith’s life to fuel his interest.

"My younger brother and I hitchhiked to the Des Moines airport when I was 13. He found $5, and that was enough for a plane ride. We managed to get two for the price of one if we only took up one seat. I remember the pilot banked sharply and I was scared to death, but it motivated me even more. When I was 14, I was asked if I’d like to work at the airport cleaning up.’’

His enthusiasm must have been quickly noted. He caught the attention of airplane mechanics who made him an "assistant’’ in wiping down and refueling planes, which he considered "the thrill of a lifetime. Before the summer was over, the local newspaper did a feature about me and told about my ambition to become an aviator.’’

It would be an uphill struggle to gain the needed background and experience.

"The mail was being flown by Army reserves at that time. I listened every chance I got for technical knowledge, seeing I’d have to know about navigation and meteorology. I got an education and learned skills so that I would be prepared when the opportunity came.’’

A pool of potential pilots

Opportunity arrived with World War II. The government held a civilian pilot training program as a means of developing a pool of pilots. Smith became a licensed pilot. He had been attending the University of Iowa as a mechanical engineering major and took a hiatus for his aviation career.

"I was flying on Dec. 7, 1941, when we got the order to land every flight,’’ said Smith, reflecting on what may have been the only occasion prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when air travel was completely grounded. "The thought that went through my mind was,‘Oh, now maybe I’ll be admitted into military aviation.’ In September 1942, I was directed to report to Tuskegee.’’

Like much of the South, the military was segregated. It was believed by some that black soldiers could not handle the complexities and technology of aviation. But the demands of entering the war after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor caused the government to launch what Smith said was at the time considered an "experiment’’ of training black aviators.

"I went to Alabama, and it was my first time being in the South. There was segregation all around except on base,’’ Smith said of the Tuskegee Army Airfield where the training was done.

"It was integrated, and there was a sense of cooperation among the black cadets and the military instructors, all of whom were white. The cadets felt there was a unique opportunity for us to take advantage of the education.’’

Smith cites the leadership of Benjamin O. Davis, the first black West Point graduate, as the reason for their success. Davis was in the first class of 13 cadets that graduated in March 1942, and was the foundation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. "He was our commander, intelligent, disciplined and visionary. He knew how to relate to people who didn’t want him where he was.’’

The Tuskegee Airmen went on to become legendary. From 1942 to 1946, 992 airmen were trained. Of that number, 450 went overseas in combat. This number is part of a 16.4 million force involved in WWII. Smith graduated as a second lieutenant in May 1943.

At the age of 22, he was a fighter pilot in Europe, flying P-39 Airocobra, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang aircraft. During his career, he is credited with destroying two German enemy aircraft in aerial combat and 10 German aircraft in ground-strafing missions.

"We were told our mission was to‘reduce Germany’s ability to wage war.’ The Germans realized they would have to get through us to their targets," Smith said.

Their success was outstanding, protecting 200 bombing missions without losing a bomber. And that success helped bring more fame and particularly respect, often more so from the enemy.

The Friday the 13th flight

Now a captain, Smith’s combat aviation career was scheduled to end in October 1944, and he thought he might become an instructor. But on Oct. 13, a Friday, on his 133rd and final combat mission, he parachuted from his burning Mustang aircraft over Yugoslavia and was held prisoner for seven months until the war ended. Badly injured, Smith was in a German hospital for that time, and then hospitalized for two more years upon returning to America.

Smith was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, Purple Heart, eight European and Mediterranean Theaters Campaign Ribbons, and the Prisoner of War Medal after being permanently injured on his final combat mission.

The Senate recently approved him for the Congressional Gold Medal. Action is now expected in the House.

"(The Tuskegee Airmen) had a tremendous impact on me as an individual, on black and white Americans, and America itself. It was a transformation from segregation, racism and discrimination to racial diversity. This began in the skies over Europe and the attitudes developed by bomber pilots.’’

Smith was permanently physically disabled from his injuries. However, he was extremely motivated by his survival to pursue goals and, long before the Army’s tag line, be all he could be. He returned to the University of Iowa and finished his degree in mechanical engineering, which was, he said, not a typical career choice for black students. After some false starts, he was employed by General Electric’s Missile and Space Operations in Philadelphia as an aerospace engineer until his retirement in 1988. He and his wife, Lois, raised two children, both Princeton graduates.

Among other honors and contributions, Smith served on the Architect-Engineer Evaluation Jury that chose the design for the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. He was one of seven veterans chosen to accompany President Bill Clinton to Europe for the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II. Moreover, he has contributed significantly to the achievement of racial equality and helped change the face of the military.

Smith and his fellow Tuskegee airmen have achieved legendary status and cannot be forgotten.