A Vet­eran’s story

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ansstory@gmail.com or avet­er­ansstory.us.

The Tuskegee Air­men and their fighter planes as­sured fel­low pi­lots a happy new year through­out World War II.

Nov. 14, 1944: On a mis­sion deep over Ger­many, the 30-ton four-en­gine B-24 Lib­er­a­tor bomber “Tail Heavy” took a hit from deadly anti-air­craft fire. The lethal flak tore into the oxy­gen sys­tem that sup­ported four of the eight crew mem­bers. The four air­men, in­clud­ing the pi­lot, passed out from lack of oxy­gen. Fly­ing at 25,000 feet with­out oxy­gen meant death or as­sured brain dam­age.

Their lives and the fate of the bomber de­pended on the de­ci­sion of a 20-year-old co-pi­lot named Jim Scheib.

Scheib didn’t have an abun­dance of op­tions. He could re­main in the for­ma­tion of 27 other B-24s with their pro­tec­tive blan­ket of 270 com­bined ma­chine guns, which meant cer­tain death for his four crew mem­bers, or power dive from 25,000 to 15,000 feet to hope­fully save the men but ex­pose the Lib­er­a­tor to the loi­ter­ing Ger­man fight­ers.

Scheib chose a power dive. At 15,000 feet, the four men grog­gily came back around, but now the for­ma­tion was 2 miles above, and “Tail Heavy” was all alone. Ger­man fight­ers loved to pounce on weak and wounded Al­lied air­craft.

The flight engi­neer tapped Scheib on the shoul­der and pointed out the win­dow. There, on their wing, sat an es­cort­ing P-51 Mus­tang with a Red Tail – a Tuskegee Air­man. A P-38 Light­ning es­cort pulled up on their other wing. The two fighter pi­lots had left the big for­ma­tion to es­cort the wounded bomber to safety. It was Scheib’s first en­counter with the Red Tails, an en­counter that most likely saved his life. His next meet­ing with the Red Tails would be much more per­sonal.

Dec. 29, 1944: Scheib and a squadron of 18 B-24s had to abort a mis­sion due to in­clement weather. En route back to their base at Venosa, Italy, the bombers dis­cov­ered their airstrip was cov­ered in 5 inches of snow. The B-24s could not land un­der those con­di­tions.

The heavy bombers were sec­tored to the Tuskegee base at Ramitelli, home of the Red Tails. Land­ing on an air- strip built for fighter planes along with their Red Tail es­cort, the lum­ber­ing B-24s came to a halt on an all- black, seg­re­gated air base. It was the first time dur­ing World War II that im­me­di­ate in­te­gra­tion of the races took place.

Stranded at Ramitelli for five days, 180 white B-24 air­men min­gled with, slept with, ate with, and talked the talk of avi­a­tors with the Tuskegee Air­men.

No racism, no in­sults, no mis­un­der­stand­ings were re­ported. War, it seems, was an equal op­por­tu­nity me­di­a­tor. The avi­a­tors swapped tac­tics, war sto­ries, and in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion, and drank beer.

The fol­low­ing is an ar­ti­cle from “Bombs Away,” a re­stricted pub­li­ca­tion of the 485th Bom­bard­ment Group, dated Jan. 7, 1945:

5-DAY VISIT WITH AN ALL-NE­GRO FIGHTER GROUP!

“A story of hos­pi­tal­ity far be­yond ex­pec­ta­tion was re­vealed this week when, com- ing back from a mis­sion last Fri­day, sev­eral of our crews, hav­ing run into bad weather, were forced to land at the base of the 332nd All-Ne­gro Fighter Group, the only one of its kind in this the­ater.

“For 5 days, ac­cord­ing to Lt. Lurser of crew 178, ‘We were treated like kings. Ev­ery one of the men was won­der­ful to us, and the quar­ter­mas­ter im­me­di­ately sent out to another field for food and five blan­kets apiece for us. We re­mained in the tents with the men, and sleep­ing quar­ters were ideal.’

“They in­sisted on serv­ing us our break­fast in bed, and pro­vided us with beer, PX ra­tions (their own), Cokes, writ­ing pa- per, and whiskey, and the New Year’s din­ner they served us was out of this world.

“And when we left, we found in each plane a let­ter, which read in part, ‘You have been the guests of the 332nd All-Ne­gro Fighter Group, and we hope our fa­cil­i­ties, such as they are, were ad­e­quate to make your stay a pleas­ant one. On be­half of Col. Davis and the Com­mand, we ex­tend to you our most hearty wishes for a happy new year and many happy land­ings… . Re­mem­ber, when you are up there and see the red-tailed Mus­tangs in the sky, they are your friends of the 332nd!’

“We only can hope that the men of the 332nd will re­al­ize how much we ap­pre­ci­ate their kind­ness and thought­ful­ness. We cer­tainly won’t soon for­get it!’

The com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the 485th Bom­bard­ment Group wrote the Tuskegee Air­men a let­ter of ap­pre­ci­a­tion: “Dear Ma­jor Jones, “On be­half of the of­fi­cers and en­listed men of the 485th Bom­bard­ment Group, I want to per­son­ally thank you for the cour­tesy and as­sis­tance which you and your per­son­nel so splen­didly of­fered to our crews which landed at your base on 29 De­cem­ber 1944. I fully re­al­ize what an in­con­ve­nience this forced land­ing must have made on your fa­cil­i­ties, and the re­mark­able man­ner in which you peo­ple of the 15th Fighter Com­mand rose to the sit­u­a­tion is all the more com­mend­able. “The very able as­sis­tance which your Ser­vice Squadron has given to the 332nd Fighter Group is well­known and now you have proven your­selves just as ca­pa­ble in ser­vic­ing our heavy bombers. Sin­cerely, Colonel Jack P. Tomhave.’”

The Red Tails were among the best; they had to be. Their ded­i­ca­tion to a mis­sion was leg­endary; their will­ing sac­ri­fice known all too well. For a max­i­mum ef­fort, the Red Tails put 48 P-47 and P-51 Mus­tangs into the air to pro­tect B-17s and B-24s on lon­grange mis­sions over Yu­goslavia, Aus­tria, France, Ro­ma­nia, Ger­many, and Greece. Dur­ing a two-day span in March 1945, the Red Tails downed 25 Ger­man fight­ers.

In­cluded in their to­tal vic­to­ries were one Ger­man de­stroyer sunk in the Adri­atic Sea near Tri­este, 111 air­planes shot down in aerial com­bat, and another 140 enemy planes de­stroyed on the ground. In­cluded in the to­tals were three Messer­schmitt Me-262 jet fight­ers.

The Red Tails lost 66 pi­lots in ac­tion and more than 30 were cap­tured.

“No one has been barred on ac­count of his race from fight­ing or dy­ing for Amer­ica — there are no “white” or “col­ored” signs on the fox­holes or grave­yards of bat­tle.” -- John F. Kennedy, 1963

Sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

The Red Tails used P-51’s and P-47’s to pro­tect B-17 and B-24 bombers over Yu­goslavia, Aus­tria, France, Ro­ma­nia, Ger­many and Greece.

Sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

The Tuskegee Air­men flew P-51’s painted with red tails and armed with enough mu­ni­tions to keep the bomber squadrons they sup­ported in the sky.

Sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

A mem­ber of the Tuskegee Air­men works the con­trol tower

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