James Sheppard—a Tuskegee Airman with a Guyana connection

Kaieteur News
May 20, 2007

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The Tuskegee Airmen is a popular name given to a group of African American pilots, the first who flew with distinction during World War II.

This cadre of airmen was part of the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps and the First Black Aviators and Fighter Pilots who fought in World War Two.

James Sheppard, a former Tuskegee Airman who is originally from New York City , was in Guyana for the past two weeks. He explained the history and circumstances surrounding the introduction of African Pilots into the US Army's navel system.

According to Sheppard, he enlisted in the Air Force in October 1942 and was assigned to the Tuskegee Army Airfield with the 332nd Fighter Group, as an Aviation Maintenance Technician.

He served with the 100th Fighter Squadron and later with the 301st Fighter Squadron in the U.S. and in Europe as a Mechanic and Crew Chief.

James Sheppard holds the following certificates: Aviation Mechanic, Senior Parachute Rigger and Airplane Pilot S.E.L and retired in 1987 from the F.A.A. where he was a Supervisory Aviation Safety Inspector.

Sheppard, during his tenure in the corps, married Guyanese Lucille Sheppard who died last August. The marriage bore two children, Robert and Eric Sheppard.

James Sheppard, who is now 80, said that prior to the Tuskegee Airmen no U.S. military pilots had been African American.

He further highlighted the series of legislative moves made by the United States Congress in 1941 which forced the Air Corps to form an all-Black combat unit, much to the War Department's mortification.

He said that in response to this demand, the Air Corps sought to set up a system which accepted only those with a level of flight experience or higher education, a demand they expected would be hard to fill; a move Sheppard describes as a half-hearted effort to eliminate the unit before it could begin.

This policy, however, backfired when the Air Corps received numerous applications from men who qualified even under these restrictions.

Further, Sheppard said that the U.S. Army Air Corps had established the Psychological Research Unit at Maxwell Army Air Field , Alabama , with other units around the country for Aviation Cadet training.

Sheppard added that on March 19, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Chanute Field in Rantoul , Illinois . Over 250 enlisted men were trained at Chanute in aircraft ground support trades.

This small number of enlisted men, he added, was to become the core of other Black squadrons forming at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields in Alabama .
Further, Sheppard narrated that in June 1941, the Tuskegee programme was officially started with the formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron, formed at the Tuskegee Institute, a famous school founded by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee , Alabama .

The unit comprised an entire service arm, including ground crew, and not just pilots.

The flyers and ground crew were largely isolated by the segregation policies of the military, and left with little guidance from battle-experienced pilots.

Things changed when they, the Tuskegee Airmen, were moved to Sicily and attached to the 79th Fighter Group, whose commander involved them fully.

The Airmen were initially equipped with P-40 Warhawks, later with P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally with the airplane that would become their signature, the P-51 Mustang.

Here they racked up an impressive combat record, often entering combat against greater numbers of superior planes, and coming out victorious.

Reportedly, the Luftwaffe soon awarded them the nickname, "Schwarze Vogelmenschen," or Black Birdmen, and Redtail.

In an exciting tone, the veteran pilot recounted that although bomber groups would request Redtail escort when possible, most bomber crewmen never knew at the time that the Redtails were Black.

It has been said, according to Sheppard, that the Redtails were the only fighter group who never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
The Airmen, he said, eventually escorted bombing raids into Austria , Hungary , Poland , and Germany .

It was also revealed that in all, 994 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives in training or combat.

Far from failing as originally expected, a combination of pre-war experience and the personal drive of those accepted for training had resulted in some of the best pilots in the USAAF, as they continued to fight racism.

Sheppard said that their combat record did much to quiet those directly involved with the group (notably bomber crews who often requested them for escort), but other units were less than interested and continued to harass them.

After the war, the Tuskegee Airmen once again found themselves isolated.

In 1949, the 332nd entered the yearly gunnery competition and won.

Many of the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen annually participate in the Tuskegee Airmen Convention which is hosted by Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

In 2006, they were collectively selected for the Congressional Gold Medal and were all awarded medals from the US President, George W. Bush, earlier this year.

(Alex Holder)