Habte Selassie, Contributor
Former Tuskegee Airman Victor Terrelonge. - Contributed
The following is the second and final instalment on the rise to fame of Jamaican Victor Terrelonge, a former Tuskegee Airman. Part One was published yesterday.
The wait was not over for Victor Terrelonge as he had to prove to the recruiters that he was eligible to fight as a naturalised citizen and had to get the confirmation from Washington. Also, defining himself for them proved tricky.
"I said I was West Indian. They laughed and said there was no such thing and called me Indian." It was not an attempt at being humorous. The recruiters simply didn't know.
Training was rigorous, but welcome. "We had to complete two years of college within five months, with no make-up test. If you failed one test, you were out of the Air Corps. Neither the army nor the navy wanted us and did everything in their power to stop us." That was the familiar experience for blacks. The nature of their mission and the racist resistance to it created an informal fraternity within the Tuskegee team that lasts until today.
After getting his wings, Terrelonge was sent to Italy. It was there that he had his first combat experience. It was there also that he was taught a life-saving manoeuvre.
"I was sitting around with nothing doing when I was approached by another pilot. He said, "Let me show you something that could save your life".
They took the Red Tail Mustangs up. Terrelonge was told to follow in pursuit. A chase was on. The pilot made a sharp turn to the right and as much as Terrelonge tried, he couldn't copy the move. It happened again on the next try. Back on the ground, the pilot explained that if the rudder was manipulated in a particular way, it would allow for the sharp turn. "Each craft has its own abilities," Terrelonge explains. Back in the air, the chase, the sharp turn and Victor held it this time. Life-saving lesson learned.
In Europe, Victor contributed to the fame of the Tuskegee Airmen. "I didn't shoot down any planes, but I sent a few back home for repairs." The discrimination that laced their welcome in the services and with the white pilots in Europe was replaced by a very healthy respect. "After a while, we stopped having assigned missions. We were not on orders, we were requested," he says. Bomber pilots were briefed the night before a mission and they would choose whom they wanted as an escort and "all of them wanted us!" The Red Tail P-51 Mustang escorts were in high demand because of an impeccable record. "We never lost a bomber we were escorting to enemy aircraft fire. We lost some good men, but never a bomber. It is something we are proud of. Very proud." It was that protection the bomber pilots wanted and competed for assiduously. Oddly, most of the white bomber pilots had no clue that their escorts were black.
After the war, Terrelonge left the service, but joined the Air Force Reserves. "I have flown everything from single-engine planes to the F-104." Is there a difference?, he was asked. "No. It's all flying. Flying is like riding a bicycle, you never forget."
His most painful flying assignment was not during the war or even in a combat situation. In the Reserves, he was called up for service during the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The slender octogenarian, who still stands ramrod, recounts patrolling the airspace around Cuba and being at a height which allowed him to see Jamaica from the air.
"What was most painful about that was, I was so close, but I couldn't go there." His cheeks became stained with the tears that welled in his eyes.
Today, Terrelonge is busier than ever. He lectures about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman to children in grade school and youngsters in college. He tells them to keep the faith, believe in and surround themselves with dream makers, stay in school, and avoid dream breakers.
He was honoured by Congress with the Congressional Gold Medal on March 29, 2007 as a member of the original Tuskegee Airmen. There are other awards, including an honorary doctorate from Tuskegee University.
Terrelonge remains rather humble. When you speak with him, you see that even his own personal experiences as a pilot are always spoken of as 'we'. Though there is no doubt about his affection for his fellow pilots, he is unreserved in his praise of the ground and support crew.
"They are part of the Tuskegee Airmen. We couldn't do anything without them. On many occasions, we would return to base with a shot-up plane - badly damaged - and in the morning your plane was ready to fly. Those guys were a resourceful bunch. The mechanics would take 15 surplus planes no one wanted in order to get parts for one good plane."
It is in recognition of their invaluable contributions that membership was opened to ground crew and support staff. Today, there is the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. It's an organisation open to pilots, ground crew, support personnel, family as Heritage Members, and anyone interested in promoting the memory of the Tuskegee Airmen and what they stand for in motivating all young people to dream big and succeed in reaching their highest potential, and helping others strive.
Other West Indians were part of the Tuskegee Airmen, among them Barbadians, US Virgin Islanders, Martiniquans and Cubans.
"I am very proud to know that a Jamaican has made history again," says Richard Chin, an engineer with New York City Transit who initiated the founding of the Organisation of Jamaican Trans-portation Professionals (OJTP) within New York City Transit.
"It is a great thing to know," adds journalist Ian Forrest, host of Connections on New York's WBAI Radio. "I know about Garvey and people like Stokely (Carmichael) and the Caribbean connections of people like Malcolm X and Shirley Chisholm, but would not dream that we were at Tuskegee and that one of us Jamaicans was there."
In New York City, Terrelonge was honoured at Jamaica's 46th year of Independence flag-raising ceremony at Brooklyn's Borough Hall, and the official Jamaica Independence Gala. Victor and Austin McKenzie (born in Cuba of Jamaican parents) were honoured at an OJTP function where they both spoke. Jamaican journalists and television and radio programmers have been interviewing and telling his story. Some have expressed the hope that the men will receive accolades from their native countries and the region in general.