Feature Story

Dorothy About Town: 9.12.18

I discovered an interesting exhibit in, of all places, the lobby of St. Louis County’s administrative offices (41 S. Central Ave.). It’s a compilation of mementos collected by one woman, U.S. Air Force Maj. Yolandea Wood, centering around the famed Tuskegee Airmen. I hope most people have heard of this group of World War II fighter pilots, but if they’re anything like me, their knowledge stops there.

The exhibit of photos, bios and artwork commemorating the first all-African American pilot squadron and its support personnel is inspiring, particularly because it reminds us of the determination—and valor—of a group of Americans who faced additional adversity beyond the battlefield. These pilots (and cooks, nurses, bombardiers and mechanics) served our country when the military didn’t want them. In fact, as St. Louis County director of communications Cordell Whitlock says, “They had to fight for the right to fight!”

The Tuskegee Airmen formed in 1941, after pressure from civil rights groups and black leaders. Until then, blacks were completely barred from being pilots, although some served a segregated U.S. military in other capacities. The squadron, based in Tuskegee, Alabama, was in existence from 1941 to 1945 and had an impressive success record. Its first combat mission to clear Mediterranean sea lanes for the Allies achieved the surrender of 11,000-plus Italians and 78 Germans. The group also set a record for destroying five enemy aircraft in four minutes. And I read about ‘the gruesome twosome,’ two Tuskegee pilots who downed four enemy aircraft each. In all, 355 Tuskegee pilots were credited for 1,578 combat missions, 179 bomber escort missions and 112 enemy aircraft destroyed. Eighty-four lost their lives, and 32 were POWs.

So how did St. Louis County come to display this collection? Wood lives in Belleville and is a member of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a national group dedicated to keeping the Tuskegee legacy alive. County executive Steve Stenger heard about her and thought the collection should be displayed publicly. At a time when few WWII veterans are still with us, it turns out one of the Tuskegee group, 94-yearold Kirkwood native George Carper, lives in St. Louis. What a fitting tribute to a local hero and his fellow servicemembers.

The Tuskegee experience reminds us that while most veterans came home to the GI Bill and post-war prosperity, “black servicemen didn’t get those benefits,” Whitlock says. In fact, when they returned, they faced red-lining and Jim Crow laws in many states. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen collectively were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2008, they were invited to President Obama’s inauguration. The collection will be on display at least through 2018.