Lt. O. Lawton Wilkerson was flying B-25 bomber training missions when World War II ended. What makes him standout is that he was doing his training at the Moton Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala.
Wilkerson spoke to faculty, staff, and students during a special Veterans Day session of the Global Studies Institute Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. He was one of the 996 Tuskegee Airmen to come through the program. The first class of Tuskegee Airmen became famous as the Red Tails, protecting B-17 and B-24 bombers during their missions. No American bombers were shot down when the Red Tails flew as fighter escorts.
Just three months shy of his 90th birthday, Wilkerson said he realizes now he was part of history, even though he was just trying to keep his head above water at the time. Two-thirds of the men who entered the Army Air Corps pilot training program “washed out,” he said. “I was just trying to survive.”
Wilkerson was introduced to flying as a young boy in Chicago Heights, Ill. He knew that is what he wanted to do after his first experience in an airplane.
“I just wanted to fly,” he explained. “It was my only opportunity to do that. I was willing to go to war to do it.”
Knowing they would eventually be drafted, Wilkerson and a friend enlisted while in high school. Ten days after graduation they were on a bus headed to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training. While there, they took the aptitude test for specialized flight training. Wilkerson passed. His friend didn’t and was transferred to another section.
Wilkerson was sent to Tuskegee for flight school. It was there that he began to feel the weight of history. But it wasn’t the weight of being one of the first black pilots in the military as much as upholding the reputation of such a successful program.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were so successful,” he explained. “You carried the weight of those people on your back. I was riding on their coat tails.”
His flight training instructors were white but he never felt discriminated against. And he never really understood the historic significance until after graduation from flight school. It was then he learned that the Tuskegee Airmen program was originally established at Chanute Air Field in Rantoul, Ill., to prove that blacks could not be pilots.
But the initial class of trainees scored the highest cumulative average on their aptitude/IQ tests following their 28 weeks of pre-flight training, so the Army Air Corps had to find a somewhere to send them. That was the Tuskegee Institute.
I just wanted to fly. It was my only opportunity to do that. I was willing to go to war to do it.
Wilkerson said 996 pilots went through the program. Only the fighter pilots ever saw any action during the war. For every pilot, there were 10 support personnel, from mechanics, to nurses, to cooks. The air field was a complete base that was segregated from the rest of the service.
In a short documentary shown before Wilkerson’s talk, one pilot described how they were treated while traveling by train. The pilots, who had sat in the rail car behind the dining car, were told they had to move to the car directly behind the coal car.
Wilkerson said he was sent home after the war. He never saw combat but he had a multi-engine rating after flying B-25 bombers during training. He tried getting a commercial pilot position but aviation companies would not even take his application. In fact, not one of the Tuskegee Airmen were ever hired as commercial pilots.
He ended up driving a bus for a short time, followed by a job in the camera section of a department store, and an insurance man (“I’m no salesman,” he laughed.) He became a disc jockey for a small AM radio station in the Chicago area. That led to WMAQ radio in Chicago, where he retired as a program manager in 1988. Wilkerson and a friend bought a small private plane and flew for a while, but sold it roughly 10 years ago because they weren’t using it enough.
Wilkerson didn’t become involved with the Tuskegee Airmen alumni until five years ago. He is a member of the DODO Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., which works to keep the story of the pilots and their struggles alive. They also work with the Experimental Aircraft Association supporting the Young Eagles program, which introduces inner-city youth to flying and potential jobs in the aerospace industry. “There are so many more jobs available than just flying,” he said.
There are approximately 200 Tuskegee Airmen still living, with four or five in the Chicago area, he said. The original group of pilots are now in their mid-90s.