El Dorado News-Times

Milton Crenshaw blazes trail for African-American pilots

- Dr. Ken BriDges

World War II was a time in which America had not a man to spare. It was a war that required all of the nation’s resources, manpower, innovation and courage.

Aviation played a vital role. One Arkansan served as one of the first African-American flight instructor­s in history. Through his efforts, Milton Crenchaw, as part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, helped train hundreds of pilots who helped turn the tide toward victory for the United States.

Milton Pitts Crenchaw was born in Little Rock in 1919, less than two months after the end of World War I. His father, the Rev. Joseph Crenchaw, was a respected minister, tailor and longtime civil rights leader in the city. The younger Crenchaw attended local schools, graduating from the segregated Dunbar High School in 1936. He received a teaching certificat­e in automotive mechanics from Dunbar Junior College before heading to Alabama to further his education.

By the late 1930s, war was growing ominously close to the United States. The importance of air power became clear to military strategist­s long before the war began. The ability of aircraft to deliver more precise reconnaiss­ance, to transport troops to and from battlefiel­ds, and the ability to attack targets over a great range gave militaries with strong aerial components a distinct advantage.

African-Americans were not allowed to serve as pilots during World War I, but recognizin­g the shortage of pilots the nation faced, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to have African-Americans trained as pilots in 1939.

As pilots were all officers, a college education was required. As a result, Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, soon became the heart of the African-American pilot training program. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, after a flight with the head of the Tuskegee flight program in March 1941, made sure that the airmen had the airport facilities they needed.

Crenchaw arrived at the university and began studying mechanical engineerin­g and soon began participat­ing in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an Army Air Corps program that trained civilian pilots in possible preparatio­n for future military service. He earned his license in August 1941 and began working as a flight instructor. He was the first known African-American from Arkansas to earn a license and one of the first Tuskegee flight instructor­s.

After the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, training at Tuskegee intensifie­d. In 1942, Crenchaw became a supervisin­g squadron member as he showed the young pilots all the intricate details of handling an aircraft in all types of weather and all types of maneuvers.

While the scholastic aspects were handled at the university, the actual flight training took place at nearby Moton Field. Ultimately, Crenchaw trained hundreds of pilots at Tuskegee. Most of the Tuskegee Airmen served in Europe in the latter years of World War II, often as bomber escorts protecting American servicemen and ensuring the success of vital wartime missions. The Tuskegee Airmen, thanks to the training they received from Crenchaw and the other instructor­s, became some of the most decorated pilots of the war.

Inspired by his wartime experience­s, Crenchaw wanted to extend the growing opportunit­ies in aviation to a new generation of African-American pilots. He returned to Arkansas in 1947 and approached Dr. M.L. Harris, then president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, about the possibilit­y of developing an aviation program for the college. The

college establishe­d a popular aviation program at nearby Adams Field (which is now the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport). He served as a flight instructor for the college until 1953.

In 1953, Crenchaw resumed his work training army pilots. He served briefly as an instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma before heading to Fort Rucker, Alabama, the next year. While at Fort Rucker, he became the first African-American instructor on the base. In 1966, he went to Fort Stewart, Georgia, where he continued to train pilots until 1972 when he began working at the base’s Equal Employment Opportunit­y Office through the Department of Defense. He retired in 1983.

In his later years, Crenchaw continued to be an advocate for the men he served with at Tuskegee. He pushed to include individual­s who served in all capacities, such as cook, groundskee­pers, flight instructor­s and medical personnel, for veterans benefits programs.

He was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2007, Crenchaw along with the 16,000 participan­ts at Tuskegee were collective­ly awarded the Congressio­nal Gold Medal for their service during war and contributi­ons to aviation.

In 2012, the film “Red Tails” premiered, dramatizin­g the experience­s of some of the Tuskegee Airmen. Crenchaw appeared in Little Rock to introduce the film and discuss his experience­s with an appreciati­ve audience. He spent most of his last years in Atlanta. Crenchaw died in November 2015 at age 96.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservati­on Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States