Meet Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson
US Air Force, Retired
"The Germans called the fearsome pilots of the 332nd, Schwartze Vogelmenschen, or Black Birdmen...But the record of which the pilots..are most proud is that no bomber under the group's protection during its several hundred escort missions was ever lost to an enemy fighter." (Glines)
I grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the years before WWII (1939-1945). I was the only black kid in a Polish neighborhood, and as a result, in school I mostly kept to myself. In my free time I enjoyed building model planes. I attended Clark College in Atlanta, GA, where I earned a science degree, majoring in chemistry and biology, minoring in math and physics. I then began graduate work in chemistry at Howard University in Washington D.C., but the war began
You may find this hard to believe, but back in 1941 Americans like me were not allowed to become pilots in the US military just because of the color of our skin. When the war started, and you were drafted, a black would be put into the "Quarter-master Corps" as a private, making $21 a month. After completing the pilots program, a lieutenant's base pay would be $150 a month, plus 75.00 flying pay. It was then I learned they were looking for black college graduates for the air cadet program, and I decided to apply. The salary was good, plus Id have the sharp uniforms, the wings, the pretty girls, and above all, I would learn to fly. I thus became part of the Tuskegee Institute Experiment, which was set up to determine if blacks could be pilots (as if the color of our skin had anything to do with our ability to fly).
In the progression of pilot training, white candidates moved from base to base. There was only one base for blacks, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, ten miles from Tuskegee Institute. The 332nd and other allblack groups were not only a team, we were a family. Perhaps this camaraderie was reflected on how well we performed in the air.
Back in 1941, the armed forces' attitude towards blacks was that of adhering to the social laws of the states. For example, when we rode in a bus or train, we were told to sit in the back of the bus and in the front of the train, right behind the soot and steam of the locomotive. We also could not socialize with whites. As Air Force officers, we were not allowed in the officers' club, but we chose to disregard this order and as a result we were kicked out of Michigan's Selfridge Air Field where we were stationed. We were also subject to the racial attitudes of some of the superior officers. Our commanding officer simply said: "This is my airfield. As long as I'm around here, there will be no socialization between white and black officers." A few days later, we were simply shipped away to South Carolina.
In the Air Force, I became one of 450 airmen, African American pilots, who trained in Tuskegee, Alabama and fought over North Africa, Sicily and Europe. The Germans called us "Schwartze Vogelmenshen," the "Black Birdmen," but to our fellow Americans we were the "Black Red-tail Angels," because of the red tails on our planes and our well deserved reputation of not losing a single bomber we were charged to escort to enemy fighters. I joined the 332nd Fighter group in 1944. Everyone knew the "red tails," they couldn't see the color of our skin through the oxygen masks and goggles, but they knew that as long as we were the escort, we'd bring them safely home.
Overseas I flew long range missions escorting "15th Air Force" bombers. On my 18th mission my P-51 was shot down by German 20mm fire, while strafing radar installations on the coast of Southern France, outside of the harbor of the city of Toulon. When I bailed out, I landed in the middle of the German Gunners who had just shot me down! I was taken prisoner and kept in camps for allied officers. Stalag Luft III, 80 miles east of Berlin on the Polish border was the first, and then in Stalag VII-A in southern Germany (20 miles north of Dachau) was the second. I wrote about this adventure in "The Encounter. A True Story." To keep busy while I was a prisoner of war, I began to record my whole adventure in a number of pen and crayon drawings.
When the war finally ended in 1945, we were liberated by the Third Army. Back home, I became an instructor at the Tuskegee Army field, and in 1947 I was discharged from active duty. I remained in the reserves, and retired in 1969. I became a teacher in the Detroit public school system, and retired in 1979 as an assistant principal. My message to young people is that our country is not perfect, but our system of government is still "the best in the world."
Nov 9, 2001, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Air Force Museum, I was formally, awarded the Purple Heart, for injuries sustained on Aug 12, 1944, during a mission to knock out radar stations on the coast of southern France, harbor of Toulon. A POW by the name of Ewell McCright was assigned the task, by the Senior American Officer, Lt Col. A.P.Clark, of interviewing every man who came into camp. He brought back the entire manuscript. He died in 1990. The whole ledger was published by Arnold A. Wright of Benton, Arkansas in 1993. On the basis of testimony filed in his ledger, endorsed by Gen Clark, the Air Force awarded me the medal. In attendance were Lillian; My brother Clarence and wife, Florence: Sister Emma and her husband Dumas; and of course, Victor Cole, good friend of Dayton.
In part because of the success of 332nd Fighter Group and the other black military units, President Truman integrated the US armed forces in 1948. Today, the Air Force offers excellent opportunities for minorities. One of the main goals of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. founded in 1972 in Detroit, is to "motivate and inspire young Americans to become participants in our nation's society and its democratic process."
Last Updated: November 21, 2001
Col C.V. Glines, USAFRet. The Retired Officer Magazine/September 1992