Tuskegee Airmen Had Two Battles to Fight

By Tate, Alysia | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 10, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Tuskegee Airmen Had Two Battles to Fight

Tate, Alysia, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

Byline: Alysia Tate Daily Herald Staff Writer

World War II veteran Shelby Westbrook of Chicago remembers the day he applied for a job as a commercial airline pilot.

He had received a Distinguished Flying Cross and five battle stars during the war. He hoped to fly for United Airlines.

But before he got out the company's door, a clerk ripped up his application and tossed it in the trash.

Like every member of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen fighter groups, Westbrook, 74, fought two battles: the enemy abroad, and racism in the military and at home.

"People ask me, with all the experience I had, why I didn't get into the commercial end of it," says fellow Tuskegee Airman Felix Kirkpatrick, 80, of Chicago. "I tell them I was born 30 years too soon."

The two recently shared their stories with a group of Rolling Meadows High School students who were inspired by an HBO movie released last year.

The film maps the struggles and successes of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first black pilots to fly combat missions in World War II.

Nearly all of those men - who represented four individual squadrons - completed most of their flight training near the tiny town of Tuskegee, Ala., home of the Tuskegee Institute.

The school was founded by Booker T. Washington, famed black educator. Critics say the pilots were placed there deliberately to isolate them.

They came under intense scrutiny by critics in the U.S. Congress, military and the media, who argued black pilots' performance was inferior.

But the pilots in 332nd used their planes, marked with distinctive red tails, to guard dozens of bombers above Italy, France, Germany and other European countries.

And as the movie depicts, theirs was the only fighter escort group in the war never to lose a bomber to Nazi pilots. That made them one of the war's most sought-after escort groups.

The daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, Joyce Moran of Lake in the Hills, said she knew little about the group as a child.

Now she is an active "heritage" member in the veterans' group, a term coined for children of the airmen. An estimated 80 airmen and their relatives still get together in the Chicago area, with about 600 meeting every year for national conferences.

Members travel to dozens of schools across the country to speak to students and raise money for scholarships.

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