In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Civilian Pilot Training Program Act to train civilian aviators at colleges and vocational schools in preparation for a national emergency. The law contained a provision that “none of the benefits of training or programs shall be denied on account of race, creed, or color.” At the time, there were only 124 licensed Black pilots in the United States--and none in the Army Air Corps.
Of six historically Black colleges and universities included in the program, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama became the most renowned. In January 1941, the War Department, under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to include Black aviators, established at Tuskegee the nation’s first Black flying unit: the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron.
Between 1941 and 1945, more than 1,000 pilots trained in the Tuskegee program; of those, 450 saw combat during World II in the 99th and 332nd Fighter groups. In aerial battles over North Africa and Europe, these pilots flew more than 1,500 missions, largely as escort planes for the bombers, but sometimes in direct combat.
We pay tribute to two of these amazing heroes, whom we had the distinct honor to meet and spend time with back in 2019.
L to R: Brigadier General Charles E. McGee, Patrick Shea, Bill Shea, Lieutenant Colonel John Edward Hardy
Lieutenant Colonel John Edward Hardy
photos credit: pbs.org
A veteran of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Colonel George Hardy served as a combat pilot of 21 missions over Germany during World War II. He later flew 45 combat missions in Korea, and 70 combat missions in Vietnam.
Hardy graduated high school in 1942 and wanted to join the military because his older brother had joined the U.S. Navy in 1941. When he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, the U.S. military was segregated. Hardy faced discrimination from commanders in the Army.
That same year he began training to fly at the Tuskegee Air Field. He was deployed to Keesler Army Air Field in Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. He graduated in 1944 as a second Lieutenant in the United States Army. He was qualified to fly single engine planes and was sent to Walterboro Army Air Field in South Carolina to train for combat. He completed his combat training in 1945 and was then sent to Italy.
Hardy became one of only 350 Tuskegee Airmen who were deployed overseas. He flew 21 combat missions over Germany in 1945. The majority of his missions he escorted bombers to their targets. During WWII, Hardy flew 21 combat missions and after the war, Hardy went back to Tuskegee to train pilots.
In 1947 Hardy went to school at New York University School of Engineering and Science until 1948. Hardy wanted to be an Engineer; he did not plan to make a career in the Air Force.
Hardy was recalled in 1948 and sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. He was sent to Guam with the 19th Bomb Group. He then was sent to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa where he flew a B-29 and piloted 45 combat missions over Korea. Hardy is very proud to say he took every single mission they offered…except for one...
"In 1950, we got a new squadron commander. He wouldn't speak to me because he didn't believe, apparently, in racial integration."
Hardy says he replaced him on a mission at the last minute.
"I felt really bad seeing my crew take off with someone else in the right seat. But it so happened that was a first B-29 shot down over North Korea. And my crew went down with it...A lot of people say, ‘Colonel Miller, saved your life, maybe.’ I said no. If I had been with them, it probably wouldn't have happened."
During the Vietnam War, Hardy flew 70 combat missions, piloting a C-119 gunship in the Vietnam War. He flew missions at night using infrared to destroy North Vietnamese supply routes and convoys in Laos and Cambodia.
Throughout his career and beyond, Hardy was awarded:
- The Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor
- The Air Medal
- Two Presidential Unit Citations
- 11 Oak Leaf Clusters
- Commendation Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster
- Tuskegee University - Honorary Doctorate Degree of Public Service in 2006
- Congressional Gold Medal 2007-This medal was presented to the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots flying for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
Hardy remembers the exact words that George Bush said the to the Tuskegee Airmen as he awarded the Congressional Medal:
“For most of the salutes you didn’t get, I salute you.”
Among the planes that George piloted through his career include:
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk North American B-25 Mitchell
Bell P-39 Airacobra
Hardy continues to educate school children by telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and speaking about segregation.
Brigadier General Charles E. McGee (1919-2022)
Along with Roscoe Brown, McGee flew the P-51B Mustang and was one of the Red Tailed Angels that escorted heavy bombers over targets in occupied Europe.
In 1972, McGee founded Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., a nonprofit support group. In his role as founder and one-time president of the group, McGee gave frequent talks about the Tuskegee Airmen and their accomplishments.
On March 29, 2007, McGee and five other Tuskegee airmen accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the nearly 1,000 Black men who went through the Tuskegee Airmen program between 1941 and 1945.
To celebrate his 100th birthday in 2019, McGee piloted a private jet from Maryland to Dover Air Force Base, where he was met by 100 service members from the 436th Airlift Wing.
"My usual P-51C was 42-103072, which as I recall bore the ‘buzz number’ 78. I christened it Kitten, which was my wife’s nickname. My crew chief, Nathaniel Wilson (to my right), kept it purring, too." (Charles E. McGee)
In 2020, he was promoted to Brigadier General, just a few weeks after