Soldiers, Scholars, and “Black Redtail Angels” in Southwest Atlanta

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre & Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student                                               Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

“White American bomber crews reverently referred to them as “The Black Redtail Angels” because of the identifying red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe.” –Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden (1920-2008) from A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman

Back in early December 2011, I received an email from a cousin that contained a trailer from the movie Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen directed by Anthony Hamilton, produced and largely funded by George Lucas.  Not long after I received the email with the trailer, I was thinking about my one and only meeting with the late Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. “Chuck” Dryden.

I had called Dryden when I briefly served as an intern for a World War II Oral History project.  When I called him, he looked at his Caller ID and determined that I was calling from a phone in Southwest Atlanta.  He told me to hang up the phone and come on over.  With no hesitation, I drove to his home, which was about six minutes from my own.

Dryden was a decorated Tuskegee Airman, and one of many Tuskegee Airmen that lived in Atlanta, which is home to more Tuskegee Airmen than any other city in the nation.  A member of the famous 99th Pursuit Squadron, and later the 332nd Fighter Group, it was Dryden who led a group of six Black fighter pilots in aerial combat in Italy in 1943—This was the first time in aviation history that Black pilots in the U. S. Army Air Corps engaged an enemy in aerial combat.

I spent an afternoon at his home in Southwest Atlanta back in the summer of 2007 where he told me how he had to be perfect as a fighter pilot if we were going to stop Hitler’s Third Reich and if he and others were going to prove that Black men made excellent fighter pilots.

That afternoon I learned that he was much, much more than a fighter pilot.  I had owned his memoir A Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman for years, but at that time, I had not yet had an opportunity to read it in its entirety.  However, from what I had read and from my conversation with him, it was apparent that he was very much a scholar.

We discussed history, politics, art, World War II, U. S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the upcoming “Democratic Presidential nomination” of Barack Obama, and of all things: my Master’s thesis.  He insisted that I tell him more about my research on the White politicians that made up the Georgia Know-Nothing Party, a group that did not want Georgia to secede from the Union as the South reeled from the election of Abraham Lincoln.

I should add that we also talked some mess!  I noticed a picture of Dryden and his beautiful and brilliant wife Marymal Dryden.  She was not there when I visited, but I remember reading one of her essays.  The handsome couple stood there in the photo with the Arizona sunset as their background.

“You remember that scene in the movie Waiting to Exhale where Angela Bassett burns up all of her ex-husband’s stuff in the car,” he asked.  “Yeah,” I answered.  “Well, we are standing right there in that same spot where she burned up everything.”  We both burst into laughter.

He could not stand upright, as he had been afflicted with a severe stroke.  Yet, his mind was razor sharp.  He thought U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was dangerous.  Moreover, of more than a dozen WWII vets that I spoke with, ALL of them thought this way.  In less than a year after my wonderful visit, Lt. Col. Dryden passed on to the ancestors.

Not long after his death, a young woman in one of my history classes informed me that she would be attending the United States Air Force Academy.  In one of our conversations where we talked about everything from the fact that the Air Force had fewer Blacks than any other part of the armed services, she told me that she met Lt. Col. Dryden before his death.

When I asked her about their conversation, she looked me straight in the eye and said that Dryden’s face lit up when she introduced herself and told him she was planning to go the United States Air Force Academy.

He told her, “When you get to the Air Force Academy, you give THEM HELL!”  We both laughed because we knew what he meant, and we offered no apologies for his pointed audacity-filled instructions to her to kick some you-know-what at the Air Force Academy.

Nearly four generations her senior, Dryden let this young sister know that his expectations of her were high.  He also knew that his vote of confidence in her abilities would buttress her against any doubts she might develop should she encounter those individuals who thought the United States Air Force had no need of Black female officers and pilots.  Like every other Tuskegee Airman I know of, Dryden never lost his swagger, his sense of possibility.  Like many other men and women of his era, he expected much from himself and from all of us who were born after him.

Dryden and my parents were contemporaries.  I am a late born child—my mom turns 91 years young this year.  If my father were living, he would be turning the age of 92.  The men and women of Dryden and my parents’ era not only lived long enough to see the world change, but they were largely responsible for changing it.

Folks my age and younger often complain about what needs to be done to create racial and economic justice.  Many of us have been vocal critics of our elders, and often our analyses of what did or did not work in the past have been correct.  However, if there is any lesson to learn from the “Black Redtail Angels,” and our elders from the World War II era and beyond is their dedication to education and their examples of extreme sacrifice.

These men and women—Black and White— those in the military and those keeping the home front, were in their twenties when Adolph Hitler threatened to destroy any semblance of racial or ethnic equality in Europe and elsewhere.  I shudder to think of how different the world might have been had he and his minions been successful.

We often forget that the Third Reich did not just target Jews for extermination.  It exterminated and planned the extermination of Poles, and all Slavic peoples, persons with mental and physical disabilities, Gays and Lesbians, and yes, Afro-Germans.

We owe folks like Lt. Col. Dryden and Lt. Col. Hap Chandler, a White fighter pilot from Toccoa, Georgia.  Not long after I met Chandler, I learned that he had shown up at a meeting of Georgia’s Tuskegee Airmen to thank them for keeping him alive and to apologize for the awful way that “members of my race treated you.”

Chandler also had that same swagger, intellectualism, and expectation that I noticed about Dryden.  In the late 1940s, he also belonged to that small but growing number of White veterans who had to reassess their erroneous beliefs about alleged “Black inferiority” that remained endemic to every aspect of American life and was the very basis of the social and economic order of the American South.  I should add that Chandler was cool.  He drove a Jaguar and arrived for his interview wearing a suit and tie and holding hands with his seventy-year-old girlfriend.

The Tuskegee Airmen, and other Black World War II veterans came back home to the United States and demanded equality from a country that denied them the very thing they had fought for abroad.  The modern-day Civil Rights movement began with the efforts and work of all of these men and women.

They went to college (or back to college) in record numbers under the G. I. Bill.  They sought advanced degrees, pursued well-paying skilled jobs in new industries, started businesses, and swelled the numbers of the Black middle class so that you and I could do much of what we are able to do now.  They bought homes and sent kids to college.

They registered and voted in every election.  They marched with and sometimes paid to get civil rights activists, students and radicals out of jail.  They set examples for us to follow and repeat, and made some mistakes for us to study and avoid, but they never stopped moving and searching for new ways to create a more just and equitable nation for their children and grandchildren.

They did all of these things without computers, cable television, the Internet, email, blogs, social media or cell phones.  We should do no less.  Peace.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

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