Tuskegee Airman speaks to Idlewild visitors

IDLEWILD — People come and go through the county and surrounding areas without residents having much of a chance to sit and talk with these visitors. In a rare opportunity, attendees to the second Idlewild Heritage Festival spoke with retired lieutenant colonel Alexander Jefferson of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Jefferson, 94, stood in the mobile Black History 101 Museum, owned by Khalid el-Hakim, and spoke with anyone who asked about his time as an airman in World War II, while temperatures climbed to almost 80 degrees. 

“So, WWII?” he asked.

In July of 1942, Jefferson graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, Ga., and in September of that year, he registered to be in the U.S. Army Reserves. 

“I did not go into active duty until April 1943,” he said. “I went into pilot training and was there for nine months learning how to fly at Tuskegee. I graduated in January 1944 and became an officer. 

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American pilots, who trained in Alabama to fight in World War II.

“In August, I was shot down over German-occupied southern France. Our job was to knock out radar stations. We took hits from German ground fire. We lost two men on that mission.”

His mission for the day, as a pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group, was to destroy radar stations firing at ships coming close to the beaches of France. 

“I went right across the top and got hit,” Jefferson said. “A shell came up through the floor right in front of me. Fire came up out of the floor, so I pulled up to get some altitude to bail out. That’s about 200 feet.

“When I came out, I remember seeing the fire. I looked down to see the trees – I was sitting on the parachute – I pulled the cable. When the parachute popped, I was in the trees, so I got bruises going down. Standing not far away, was a German soldier with a big rifle. So I became a POW. 

“I was taken to south camp, Stalag Luft III. Altogether there’s 100,000 men in the four camps. In this camp there are six blacks out of my unit - I’m one of the six. I was there for nine months, as just another officer. Ironically, we were all integrated and nobody ever thought about it. We were accepted.”

In Stalag Luft III, all the men were part of an army air corps, French, Canadian, Polish and American, Jefferson said. The camp was in Poland, where he spent the first four or five months of his capture.

“When the Russians came in from the east, we walked to Stalag VII-A, near Munich,” he said. “That’s where the Germans put us all.”

During his time as a POW, Jefferson said he drew pictures of everything he saw. There was nothing else to do but draw and read. There was an extensive library. The pictures Jefferson drew can be found in his book, “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW.”

The tail of Jefferson’s plane was painted red for identification, so when he and the other 332nd Fighter Group pilots joined the B-17 bombers, the bombers could tell who their allies were, he said. Another group was the yellow tails, the 52nd Fighter Group, as well as others distinguished by the colors of their tails.

“The Germans didn’t have very much food to give us,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for International Red Cross food parcels, we would have died. We were liberated by Gen. Patton’s Third Army. Liberation day was April 29, 1945.”

By liberation, Jefferson said eight or nine pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group were in POW camps. During war, close to 60 Tuskegee Airmen were lost in accident or combat.

“I found this picture at the Air Force Academy,” Jefferson said, pointing to a black-and-white photo in his book, taken by a U.S. Army photographer. “I looked at it and said, ‘Hey, there’s me.”

After liberation, Jefferson came home to much different treatment.

“We came back to the U.S. by boat, across the Atlantic. I came back to the states and became an instructor at Tuskegee, at the school where I was trained. I was an instrument instructor to the final phase of cadets graduating, until 1946.”

“I came back to the states to segregation and discrimination, until 1948 when Truman integrated the military. Then six years later the educational systems were integrated. Slowly but surely things were integrated. First the military, then education, then voting and we are still fighting.”

When Tuskegee closed in 1946, Jefferson transferred to Lockbourne Air Force Base, now Rickenbacker, near Columbus, Ohio. Six months to a year later, Jefferson left the base and moved back to Detriot, remaining in the Army Reserve until retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1969, he said. During his time in the reserves, Jefferson attended Wayne State University to get a degree in elementary education. 

“I was a science teacher for 35 years or so,” he said. 

He retired from the Detroit School system in 1979, after being an assistant principal.

Jefferson was very instrumental in starting the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. chapter in 1972. Now there are 50 or 60 chapters worldwide. 

“Things change,” he said. “The Civil Rights Movement changed the military. The world is changing. Tuskegee was just one aspect of overall change of the world. 

“It was normal being black, learning and understanding segregation and discrimination. I survived learning what the world was about, not being able to change anything and hating it naturally. I was fully aware of living under those conditions.

“This exhibit shows blacks still trying to join the country,” he said, indicating the mobile museum around him at the Idlewild Heritage Festival. “It’s always a job.”