TCNJ’s Tuskegee connection

Tuskegee Airmen Flight School Graduation Picture, October 9, 1942, Tuskegee Army Airfield (Tuskegee, AL). Standing, left to right: Nathaniel M. Hill, Marshall S. Cabiness, Herman A. Lawson, William T. Mattison, John A. Gibson, Elwood T. Driver (TCNJ Class of 1942), Price D. Rowe, and Andrew D. Turner. Photo (c) PD-USGOV

As a commissioned Naval officer in the 1960s, Raymond R. Taylor MEd ’77 had the opportunity to meet and speak with several of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots who fought in World War II as part of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Years later, while taking graduate classes at The College of New Jersey (which was then known as Trenton State College), Taylor called on the knowledge he gleaned from those interviews to write two fact-based fictionalizations about the Airmen’s experiences during the War.

In “Soul in the Sky,” Taylor puts the reader in the cockpit with one of the famed Tuskegee airmen during the pilot’s first encounter with enemy aircraft. In “Dough Boy Five,” Taylor tells the story of a white American pilot whose life is saved by some of the Tuskegee pilots and is surprised to discover that African Americans are allowed to fly in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In 1975, Utimme Umana, a now-defunct TSC student publication sponsored a writing competition for works about black history. “Soul in the Sky” won First Place.

This article about Capt. Driver ran in the Nov. 6, 1943, issue of the campus newspaper. It references a September 1943 article from “Click” magazine in which Capt. Driver and the other Tuskegee airmen were featured. Click image to view a larger version.

Coincidentally, one of the airmen Taylor interviewed, and whose experiences inspired “Soul in the Sky,” was a fellow alumnus: Capt. Elwood T. Driver ’42. After graduating from The College of New Jersey (then known as New Jersey State Teachers College at Trenton), Driver immediately joined the Army Air Corps, where he became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. In 1944, Driver shot down a German aircraft over Anzio, Italy. Driver, who passed away in 1992, served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, and also worked for the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Taylor, who is retired from the New Jersey State Department of Education, shared his articles with us (see below). He reports that he is still writing, and is currently at work on a children’s book about education. Taylor lives in Ewing, NJ, with his wife, Veronica, who received her MS degree from the College in 1970. The couple’s son, Byron, a 2001 graduate (BA) of TCNJ, received his law degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, in 2006 and his MBA from the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business in 2012.

Editor’s note: Versions of the articles below were originally published in a TSC student publication in 1975. They are reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Black History During WWII

“Soul in the Sky” (A New Pilot’s First Combat Mission)

© 2012 All Rights Reserved

By Raymond Rongy Taylor MEd ’77

The leather helmet and goggles are the status symbol here. How you have sweated and strained to become a part of this force. The most demanding examinations had to be passed. You don’t know how you did it, but here you are a flying officer. Yes, as you look around you, you realize that you have come a long, long way. Now, finally you have your chance, your countrymen are depending on you and you wonder as they do, can Blacks master high-performance aircraft and fit in?

It’s a half hour ’til dawn and the four-bladed props begin turning within the light morning mist. Fire and smoke are thrust from engines with rapid coughing sounds that soon become steady roars. Red noses spin and red tails wag as ground crewmen remove wheel chocks and direct taxing aircraft into the moving lane of traffic. Clouds of dust are blown behind them into the cool night air. Wings armed with machine guns rock in the turbulent breezes. Wheels turn slowly and carefully to line up with the dim runway fires glowing in the distance. “Crafty Blue Leader ready for takeoff,” sounds in your headset. You’re moving toward the runway with illuminated gauges indicating that all pressures and temperatures are normal. One by one, planes from your flights take off. Now, it’s your turn. You release the brakes and steadily increase the fuel to the 2,000 horsepower engine. Your aircraft bolts down the runway like a caged animal that has suddenly been set free. Soon, that heavy rolling contact with the earth stops. A crazy song buzzes through your head—“off we go into the dark, dark yonder.”

Later, rays of light slowly emerge from the horizon. It’s a beautiful sight. You look all around you. There! Up there, a large swarm of enemy planes approaches. Your flight leader calmly calls them out. Bandits, bandits, one o’clock high. Let’s go get ‘em. That steady hum from your aircraft becomes heavy and powerful as you rise to meet them. Here they come, as if Hitler himself stood towering in the sky flipping aces down from a giant deck and tossing them your way. Their wing guns flicker as they drop down spraying bullets. The Jerry is hungry, guess he senses that there’s new meat in the sky today. Automatically and without hesitation, you’re blasting away with all your guns at a couple of passing Jerries. High and to your left your flight leader and several others are rolling out of high banking turns. They’re coming back to intercept the Jerries after they break off their initial attack on your flight. Soon, you’re rolling out of a high banking turn. A Jerry passes and the pursuit is on. You’re jubilant and over anxious while jockeying into position. The Jerry’s twist and turns elude you momentarily. You’re taking too long to line him up in your gun sight. You finally get off a short burst of gunfire and you’re startled in the same instant by a hail of bullets that rip through your canopy. You’re being pursued too! You fake a left turn and roll right completely over, down under and away in the opposite direction from your pursuer. A quick look over your shoulder confirms it.

What have we here? You blink and focus your eyes in disbelief after that near disaster, but that’s aerial combat for you. You’ve blindly maneuvered into an excellent position for a shot at a Jerry just above those trees. This time…you’re a little calmer. You fire, leading his 109 with your bullets. A hit! A hit! He’s smoking. He’s really smoking. Forgetting what you’re doing for a moment can be fatal. You’re in a screaming dive, closing close to 400 miles per hour. You pull back on your stick and throttle. Treetops smash mercilessly against your prop and wings before you’re able to pull out of that dive. Suddenly, you’re climbing without knowing your enemy’s general position. Sweat enters your eyes and your damn foot is uncontrollably shaking. “Join up, Join up,” comes through garbled in your headset. Rolling into a level turn, you scan the horizon. There are two groups of aircraft moving away from one another. “Join up, Join up Red tails.” It’s your flight leader referring to the red paint on your planes. You check your instruments and trail for about 50 miles until you’re close enough to move into your position. You look around and you’re all together. I messed up, I messed up, I messed up! This antagonizing thought rotates over and over in your mind. You feel that you’ve missed your big chance. As if one day, one hour, an instant, was all the time you had to prove that you are a fighter of the first caliber. What the hell are you doing up here anyway? Just 80 years ago, your ancestors were illiterate slaves. For you (of all things) it was the dark color of your skin that caused you to become segregated, discriminated against and called crazy names and forced to live with lies about your courage and intelligence by oppressors and bullies just to keep you down. That tactic was used to obtain some control over you and or to profit from reducing your fair share of opportunities for self improvement. For others, it may have been something other than skin color. You could be among the furrows on some farm picking cotton. But no, you have obtained some insight and you’re going to prove that you are an American Patriot helping to save Liberty and insure Justice for All. But, can you possibly survive in the sky with “supermen”? It’s 1944 and you are a proud member of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ all Black 332nd fighter group. Then,…. suddenly you recall that last look at the Jerry revealed one heavily damaged, smoking ME 109 enemy aircraft. Now,…. your message to the oppressors and bullies of the world is—

The hand writing is on the wall and your days are numbered.

As indicated, the Black pilots’ first encounter with WWII enemies had a tremendous psychological impact on him and others. Back home, Blacks were forced to remain the weakest citizens in America by oppressors and bullies while some enemies were professing to be “supermen.” However, after Blacks received a chance to train and become fighter pilots at the mostly segregated air base in Tuskegee Alabama, members of that group entered World War II, shot down many enemy airplanes (including the first jets of the War), safely protected U.S. bombers to their targets, were awarded many individual Distinguished Flying Crosses, received several Unit Citations (from the President of the United States) and while on a secondary mission (without any bombs), destroyed an enemy warship (a destroyer) with machinegun bullets.

Incidentally, Capt. Elwood T. Driver from Trenton, NJ, attended the College (then known as New Jersey State Teachers College at Trenton) and was a member of the group that this story was about. Capt. Driver shot down a FW 190 German aircraft during a wild aerial dogfight on Feb. 5, 1944, flew numerous missions, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal for displaying outstanding courage, aggressiveness, and combat technique.

Black History During WWII

“Dough Boy Five”

© 2012 All Rights Reserved

By Raymond Rongy Taylor MEd ’77

Over a blazing enemy target amidst heavy flak and approaching ME-109’s, your B-17 bomber is falling behind the main formation completing their turns toward home. Vibrations of a short, jerky up and down frequency control your aircraft’s movement and you pray that the rivets will hold her together. The already rough steering becomes erratic as you try to guide her on course. Smoke had engulfed your number one engine and that brief gaze has just cost you another 100 feet. You switch your number one engine off and feather its prop blades to prevent further damage. Adding power to your number two engine slows the vibrations and her performance is better now. Hundreds of black smoke puffs speckle the grey sky. Flak bursts all around your aircraft and she rocks and dips with every near hit. “Bluebaker one, Bluebaker one, this is Doughboy five, Doughboy five, do you read me? – over.” “Skipper our radios shot to pieces.” It’s the navigator reporting. “What’s the new heading and distance to the nearest friendly field?” “040 degrees, 450 miles skipper.” “I understand 040, 450.” “That’s correct sir!” “What’s the status of the ship? Anyone hurt?” “No sir, but it’s awfully breezy back here.” “Bandits! Bandits! Five o’clock low.” You maneuver into a shallow right turn to throw their timing off. Suddenly above the noise and confusion-zoom! Zoom! Your aircraft rumbles and a chill goes down your spine as two ME 109’s streak by heading two o’clock high. “Head’s up gang, Bandits, two o’clock, two o’clock high!” You continue a maneuver to the right—toward them so as to cut their firing time short and give your gunners a closer shot at them as they pass. If you could pray you would, but the thoughts won’t come. You feel inside that these two attacking hawks are bringing death! You brace yourself but…nothing happens. What’s going on? They’re not attacking. “Yippee! Wa-who! Look at ‘em go!” It’s the screams of your crew and now you join their glee with a broad smile. Some of the escort fighters are giving those Jerries hell. Three ME 109’s are blasted out of the sky as a steady wall of bullets find their mark and there is almost a mid-air collision as the other 109’s scramble for home after that display of marksmanship. Now you really feel good because two of those escorting mustangs have joined you in formation. Boys those planes are beautiful (you think to yourself). Red spinners and redtails. They really look good.

You land at your escort’s field. Soon you’re out of old betsy, alive and well for another day’s battle. Looking around the field, you’re startled at what you see, but you show no emotion. You can ask questions, but that can wait. You don’t want anyone to think that you’re not cool. After a talk with the commanding officer, you head for the tent marked Officer’s Club and you stroll in as though you were stationed there. You gratefully thank your escort for saving your life and announce in a loud clear voice, “The beers on me.” Then as you grip one of the guys’ shoulders who saved your life and toast his good health, you think things that you’d never speak of here. (Dammit, I didn’t even know that Black Folks could fly!)

This episode is based on fact: as incredible as it may seem, many of the bomber crews who were escorted by the all Black 332nd fighter group during WWII didn’t even know that the group existed. Some found out by accident as this episode indicated.

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