The Tuskegee Airmen helped alter the perceptions of a backward country and its like-minded military. In honor of Black History Month, this is their story, as told by the Main Liners who lived it.
Photo by Jared Castaldi
By 1940, Roscoe Draper had earned his private pilot’s license. While at Hampton Institute in Virginia, the Haverford resident was selected for the secondary course at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He’d received his flight instructor rating by 1942. Then he applied for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his patriotic plea to enter World War II was irreverently rejected.
“I was ready,” he says. “I wanted to fly.”
Draper never reapplied for military service. “It seemed they were done with me, and I was done with them,” he says.
Dr. James R. Williams, meanwhile, was rejected at a South Philadelphia recruiting office. Weighing 170 pounds, he was deemed “too heavy.” Williams suspected, then and now, that his “hue didn’t meet their criteria.”
Williams trained for two weeks, running at night from his Bryn Mawr home to Wayne and back, even sweating off calories in his aunt’s third-floor apartment in Virginia. He returned to the recruiting office weighing just a pound less—and was accepted. “They couldn’t say no anymore,” Williams says. “I figured if I came back hungry and skinny, they couldn’t say no.”
Among America’s first black military airmen in World War II, Williams fought two wars—one overseas and the other at home. In the process, he helped to right a backward-thinking country and its like-minded military. It’s taken decades, but now the Tuskegee Airmen are celebrated. All those associated with the Army Air Corps’ segregated Tuskegee Experiment in Alabama were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in March 2007. The nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. boasts 55 chapters nationwide, including one in Philadelphia. An outdoor mural was dedicated in West Philly, and able survivors are much-sought-after speakers.
“It never crossed my mind that we’d be considered pioneers,” says Draper, who turns 92 in May. “Where we were able to make a difference, we made it. I’m grateful to the country for giving us the opportunity to fly. I was taught at the government’s expense, or else I wouldn’t have made it as I was. I owe a debt of gratitude.”
Though denied entry as a cadet, Draper became one of the first 10 black men selected as civilian flight instructors. He taught Army Air Corps cadets at Tuskegee’s Moton Field from 1942 to 1945.
Now 84, Williams became one of a handful of “triple-rated” Tuskegee airmen. He earned all three wings—in navigation, as a bombardier and as a pilot—between 1943 and 1945. “I still have them, and I can wear them,” he says.
Today, Draper is back living in Haverford, and Williams in Bryn Mawr. Others from around the Main Line also had Tuskegee ties, most notably aviation legend “Chief” Charles Alfred Anderson, who died in 1996. His mother was a steward in Draper’s church in Bryn Mawr. Local Tuskegee pilots also included Bill Broadwater, also of Bryn Mawr; Thomas Love and Joseph Jenkins, both from Ardmore; William Rice of Swarthmore; and Yeadon’s Curtis Samuel.
In 1941, Anderson flew First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a Piper Cub for a visit to a veterans’ hospital in Tuskegee. It was the catalyst for the Tuskegee Experiment. “She was truly a Democrat,” says Draper. “She believed all men have equal rights.”
That year, her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ordered the Army Air Corps to accept blacks, though they weren’t allowed to train with whites. And on June 23, 1941, the government began building Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Growing up in the 1930s, Draper knew Anderson. Many knew him. After all, he was a black man flying airplanes. “He was Chief Anderson because he was the chief pilot [at Tuskegee],” Draper says of his mentor. “I admired his desire so much.”
As it turns out, Anderson used to get his hair cut in the Ardmore barbershop owned by Williams’ uncle. As a boy, Williams played football with Broadwater, a bombardier at Tuskegee who eventually became a longtime Federal Aviation Administration executive and a highly regarded airspace expert. Broadwater turned 85 last month. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
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Roscoe Draper’s only real chance was the Civilian Pilot Training Program. It was 1939, the war had begun, and America figured it could be won with aviation. In addition to Hampton and Tuskegee institutes, the government initiated the program at Delaware State University, West Virginia State University, Howard University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. After the initial training, secondary training continued at Tuskegee.
Anderson, who taught the primary course at Howard, also instructed the first group at Tuskegee. Draper was among them. “The inspectors said, ‘These guys can really fly,’” Draper recalls.
Anderson’s aviation opportunities were largely due to Albert E. Forsythe, a black physician from Atlantic City. Anderson teamed with Forsythe for goodwill flights in the Spirit of Booker T. Washington to prove that flying wasn’t only a white man’s domain. Ernest Buehl, a World War I German Air Force pilot who owned airports in this country, also deserves credit. As Anderson’s instructor, he made sure he received his air transport rating.
The first class at Tuskegee began with 13 participants in July 1941. Five completed training in March 1942. Through 1946, almost 1,000 black pilots graduated at TAAF. Of them, 450 served overseas in the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) and the 332nd Fighter Group. The 99th Fighter Squadron flew P-40 Warhawk aircraft in combat in North Africa, Sicily and Italy from April 1943 to July 1944, when they were transferred to the 332nd Fighter Group. “Guys we taught came back from the war and had more experience than we had,” Draper says.
Among those whom Draper trained was Lee Archer, the only Tuskegee Airman credited as an “ace” for making a required number of kills. He died a year ago.
Others, like Williams and Broadwater, were never in combat. The closest Williams came was training in B-25s to bomb Tokyo. They modified their own runways to match Tokyo’s and practiced low-level flying. “We were ready to go, but you didn’t really want to go,” he admits.
The mission never left, and the war ended. Maybe it was for the best. “I loved to fly [B-25s],” Williams says. “But I enjoyed it all: the guys, the cussing, the camaraderie. Nowadays, we keep telling the same stories, but we can’t even keep the lies accurate anymore.”
The experience wasn’t always a pleasant one. Black airmen training at Selfridge Field in Michigan were denied entry into the base officers’ club. Then they were transferred to Godman Field in Kentucky, where the hostility continued. In early 1945, the group was moved to Freeman Field in Indiana. There, 103 black officers defied direct orders to keep out of the officers’ club. They were arrested, charged with insubordination and ordered to face court-martial. Only one officer was convicted, but his conviction was reversed and his military record cleared. It took 50 years for 15 of the original 103 officers still living to get official notification that their military records had been expunged of any reference to the Freeman Field incident.
After the war ended, black airmen returned home and faced continued racism and bigotry, despite their outstanding war records. Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 15,000 combat sorties and shot down 111 enemy aircraft. They also never lost a bombardier under their protection.
Still, chances for advancement and promotion were limited. In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted an executive order that directed equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the Armed Forces. In time, it halted racial segregation.
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Despite his years, Roscoe Draper feels spry. He rides an exercise bike five or six times a week. He eats only enough to stay healthy. Physically, he uses common sense. Mentally, he continues to revel in having been paid to fly airplanes. “It was great to begin with, and then they were paying me for it, too,” he says.
He’s still driving cars and flying planes, though not as the lead pilot. Once up—often with Vince Mallory, a retired educator whom Draper has partnered with in owning aircraft—he’ll handle the controls without a hitch. He hasn’t taken his last flight yet, nor does he think it would be a great way to die. “I’ve been fairly lucky so far,” says Draper. “But I don’t believe in pushing my luck.”
He lost his wife, Mary Malone Draper, last August after a 15-year bout with Parkinson’s disease. They married in 1944 during the Tuskegee years. “I was in my 20s, and I was living,” Draper says. “I was flying airplanes and meeting pretty girls.”
Mary was first a secretary to Hampton Institute’s dean of women, then a secretary to the head of the agricultural program at Tuskegee University.
These days, he misses his copilot. “It’s been hard,” Draper admits. “It’s been a different, unpleasant role making it without her. We never had a serious argument; we never thought anything was that important to argue about. We were a match made in the heavens.”
He tried to teach Mary to fly before they left Tuskegee. “She was glad our time there was over,” he admits. “She wasn’t happy about flying, and I guess I was trying to force it on her. We all don’t have a bent for aviation. A lot of people think we’re all half-crazy—but those are the same people who don’t think twice about driving 100 miles per hour in an automobile. We can avoid dangerous situations in the air, so in our book, it’s much safer than driving a car. As we say in aviation, the worse thing about flying is driving to the airport.”
Draper waited until he turned 60 before he earned his helicopter rating. “I was born to hover,” he says. “When you’re hovering, you have to do almost nothing—and I can do almost nothing better than anyone I know.”
Born on a farm on Haverford’s Buck Lane, Draper also lived in Bryn Mawr, Radnor Township and Maryland before returning home in seventh grade. He graduated with honors from Haverford High School. His parents were domestics, but his mother died a week before he turned 9, leaving behind seven children, including the one that cost her her life in delivery. The children were raised by one of his father’s sisters.
At first, Draper went to Hampton to become an auto mechanic, then considered sheet metal work. But in 1939, in his second year at the institute, the Civilian Pilot Training Program was introduced. He never had an outright desire to fly—but only because he didn’t think it was possible. An opportunist, he jumped at the chance.
After the war, Draper went 20 years without flying 20 hours, though he continued renewing his currency and ratings. Then he became a part-time instructor between shifts at Philadelphia’s main post office, where he became a night supervisor. He also held a part-time job at a liquor store.
Starting in 1970, Draper worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as a pilot examiner and an accident investigator. As an instructor, he mostly flew out of Old Star Airport in Langhorne, acreage now occupied by the Oxford Valley Mall.
At 19, Elaine Huf took her first flight lesson in a Piper Tri-Pacer at Old Star. “Old Star was unique in many ways,” says Huf. “There were two intersecting grass runways near the old Langhorne Speedway, which made it easy to spot. And Old Star was occupied by a bunch of the nicest guys I’ve ever met—especially my primary instructor.”
Under Draper’s guidance, Huf soloed seven months after her first lesson in 1967, and she passed her private pilot check ride in 1968. Since then, she’s added a sailplane rating, a seaplane rating and an instrument rating. She now resides on a private airstrip in Kingsley, Pa.
“When I first met Roscoe at Old Star, I never knew much of his background, except that he was a flight instructor in WWII,” Huf says. “I didn’t know he was affiliated with the Tuskegee Airmen, and he never spoke of his accomplishments. To me, he was just Roscoe, my beloved flight instructor.”
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Born on Warner Avenue in Bryn Mawr, James R. Williams graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1943. He attended Muhlenberg College after the war on the GI Bill, then Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. A clinical and anatomic pathologist, he spent his postwar career inspecting hospitals—many of them VA facilities, but also Bryn Mawr Hospital.
As an aviation cadet at Tuskegee, you had to be “slick upstairs,” Williams says. And thick-skinned, whatever the color.
One night, Williams and the other navigation cadets training in San Antonio, Texas, were given the night off. By bus, a mixed group went into town to blow off some steam. On the return bus, “the blackies weren’t allowed on,” he says. “All our white guys got off the bus. It was the greatest gesture I’ve seen in my life. They said, ‘If they don’t go, we don’t go,’ and they all came off. Then, we all got back on and went back to the base.”
As for Tuskegee and the “experiment,” Williams recommends a visit to the university that Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver made famous, along with the base and the museum. “It’s our history,” he says. “Tuskegee profited because of aviation, but it didn’t start because of it.”
Once a keen pilot, Williams is now blind in his left eye, the result of cataract surgery gone wrong. But even with one good eye, he knows his Congressional Medal looks good. He remembers how loud all the music was—and “lots of guys with canes and in wheelchairs.”
The medal “does what it does, and it is what it is—and I like this thing,” he says.
As an instructor, Draper never endured what the others did, so he didn’t think it was right to attend the 2007 medal ceremony. “If it took all that time to become important, I decided it wasn’t that important that I be there,” he says.
He’s also never forgotten the denial of his application for active duty. “In those days, they didn’t like our skin, and maybe that’s the way it will always be,” he says.
At 18, Bill Broadwater tested into the CPTP, where he was reunited with Chief Anderson. Broadwater was 10 the first and last time he’d seen Anderson before Tuskegee. A co-worker with Broadwater’s father at a local girls’ school, Anderson landed a plane on a baseball field in Bryn Mawr. “At Tuskegee, he gave me my final check ride and signed my log,” says Broadwater.
After graduating, Broadwater was assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group, the same group that crashed the officer’s club—though he arrived after the incident. The 477th was scheduled for a 1945 cleanup mission in the South Pacific. But then the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the war ended.
After the war, racism still ravaged Broadwater’s progress in aviation. When he applied for an airline pilot’s job in 1948, he passed the necessary exam, but he was told to take the test again. He passed again but still wasn’t hired. So he wrote the airline and complained. A public relations person bluntly explained why he wasn’t hired: “He said, ‘We wouldn’t be able to get people on the plane if we put you in it,’” Broadwater recounts.
A few years later, he landed a job as an air traffic controller with the FAA. For that—and many of the jobs he’d soon be promoted to—he was the only black in the ranks. He became the FAA’s lead air traffic control instructor, training 320 for the job—including 30 blacks—before a two-year promotion as a military liaison.
From there, Broadwater moved into a specialist’s role, which took him to Washington, D.C., in 1964. After he retired in 1980, he worked as a consultant in air traffic, litigation and airspace for another 25 years. Donald Trump was a client. These days, he’s working on two memoirs—one on his FAA career, the other about his days as a Tuskegee Airman.
Once the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. president, Broadwater was on the Congressional Medal committee. Of all those involved in the Tuskegee Experiment—some 962 pilots, 125 navigators and bombardiers, 100 administrative officers, and 13,000 enlisted servicemen—the committee was able to identify about 1,500 survivors, including 380 pilots. Of those, 383 attended the ceremony in their honor. Another 100-150 medals were mailed. The average age of Tuskegee survivors, Broadwater says, is 88.
“We’re thinning out, ” says Draper. “But I might be around another 40 or 50 years—I try not to do anything that’s likely to kill me.”
For more, visit tuskegeeairmen.org.