Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW is
Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson’s account of becoming a Tuskegee Airman, and getting
shot down over Germany during his 19th mission on August 12th,
1944. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp, and was held captive until April
29th, 1945. Jefferson writes about growing up in segregated Detroit
and tells how his fascination with aviation influenced his education. He talks
about training to become a Tuskegee Airman and his missions overseas. He
discusses his experience as a prisoner of war, and also details his life and
career after the war.
The most interesting part for me was
reading about how many barriers stood in the way of black men to join the Army
Air Corps, because no one wanted black men to have the chance to prove they
were as intelligent and capable of flying as white pilots. Women faced similar
obstacles, as I read about in WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War
II by Vera S. Williams. Jefferson writes:
“On September 23, 1942, I was sworn into the Army Reserves.
I immediately volunteered for flight training but was told to return home and
wait for a position to open up. When I asked when this would be, I was told not
to worry about it. I wasn’t sure I would ever be called, but at least being in
the reserves kept me from being drafted. At the time, I didn’t understand what
was going on, but I later learned there was a rigid quota restricting how many
blacks could be inducted each month into the training program at Tuskegee,”
Even if someone made it into the program, it was unlikely
that he would graduate. The government made sure that only a small percentage
of cadets graduated.
“We cadets were all college graduates…there were 90 of us
who started…by the end of our nine months of training, only 25 of us had
survived. Some were eliminated for flying inadequacies, and some for
non-military reasons. Years later, through the Freedom of Information Act, we
discovered there had been a quota for how many blacks were allowed to graduate.
The phrase used to wash guys out was “eliminated while passing for the
convenience of the government,” (26).
Like many black veterans, and talented individuals of color
in many industries, Jefferson was not officially recognized for his achievement
and sacrifice by the government until much later on in life. He received the
Purple Heart in 2001 and collected other prestigious awards too. Of course, his
induction into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame at the Kalamazoo Aviation Museum
(now known as the Air Zoo) in 1995 stood out for me among his honors.