History Made Personal

It never ceases to amaze me, the difference it makes when any event, fact or statistic hits close to home. You can know 50 people who’ve lost their parents, but you don’t understand how awful it is until it happens to you. All of us know, intellectually, that cancer is terrible. But not in the visceral way that anyone who’s fought it, or lived with someone fighting it, does. I knew that 2 million children died from diarrhea each year in Africa. But it didn’t cost me sleep at night until I was flying with Air Serv International in Chad a couple of years ago, and the two-year-old son of the pilots’ cook died of the illness while I was there.

Why is it that staggering statistics don’t move us as much as a single human example? Perhaps we’re hardwired to respond more to local community connections, because that’s good for survival of the species. But I suspect a more likely explanation is simply that when someone stands before us with their story … a story that really happened, or is happening … to THEM … we can’t distance ourselves from it anymore. It becomes undeniably real; painted in vivid colors with one particular human being’s emotions, personality and life details. It gives us something we can get our minds, hands and hearts around. It’s hard to care passionately about 2 million children you’ve never met. But the death of one particular two-year-old, right in front of you, can break your heart.

Equally amazing is that this powerful transformation, from conceptual to personal, can happen even after many years of familiarity with a subject you know exceedingly well.

I know, for example, that the Tuskegee Airmen were an astounding group of World War II aviators who have become one of the most respected “reunion” groups of pilots from that war. I know that, as the first African American pilots in the Army Air Corps, they had to prove themselves worthy and overcome prejudices of many kinds. I know that their combat record speaks for itself: In their bomber escort duties, the “Red Tail” P-51 Tuskegee Airmen pilots had an almost perfect record of returning every single bomber safely home again … a record that’s particularly impressive, considering that bomber crews in WWII had one of the highest casualty rates of any combat group in the war. And I know that in the years since, the Tuskegee Airmen have continued to work tirelessly to shepherd their communities forward, working with disadvantaged youth to encourage them to stay in school, set high personal goals for achievement, and lead distinguished, honorable lives.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was at a Rotary dinner honoring Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Floyd J. Carter. Colonel Carter is a distinguished, graceful man of 86, who spent 31 years serving his country in the military, including service in three wars (WWII, Korea and Vietnam) and a stint at McGuire Air Force Base in the early 1970s, where he became the first African American commander of a heavy jet transport squadron. After receiving his award, Carter spoke unapologetically, and with passion, about what it was really like to be one of the men in the “Tuskegee experiment.”

The men who entered the Tuskegee program were all very accomplished — college graduates, high achievers. And yet, only half of Carter’s initial classmates were given passing grades on their qualification exams and allowed to proceed to pilot training. “[The instructors] didn’t believe black people had the coordination or intelligence to fly airplanes,” Carter said in a matter-of-fact tone, adding that he was just “telling it the way it was.” And in pilot training, harassment was a daily ordeal.

“All of the instructors were volunteers,” Carter recalled. “Now, some of them volunteered because they believed in the program. But others volunteered to try to keep us from succeeding. They’d call us stupid niggers and try all kinds of things to provoke us into getting angry, or coming back at them. Because the minute you did that, you washed out. We’d talk at night, in the barracks, about how to handle it. And some guys, they just couldn’t. And they didn’t make it.” Of the 40 cadets who made it to pilot training with Carter, only 13 graduated.

Col. Carter said there were many times he wanted to reach out and grab his instructor by the throat. “But I told myself, ‘if you do that, he wins. If you can take it, you win.’ “

Carter did rebel at least once, however. On a night training flight in a B-25, Carter made a slightly unscheduled diversion. He’d found out that the governor of Alabama, whom Carter says was “extremely racist, and against the Tuskegee program,” was speaking in the Capitol building in Montgomery.

“So I took that B-25 to Montgomery … it was only about 30 miles away,” Carter said. A broad, impish grin spread across the elderly man’s face as he recalled the incident, all these years later. “It was night, so I knew nobody would see my numbers. And I took that B-25 down low, and I turned up the power, and then I turned up the props.” He paused. “And you know,” he said, “when you turn up the props on a B-25, it really makes some noise!” He chuckled, remembering. “And then I flew right over the top of that building, just to disturb his speech.”

** Above: Ken Schechter and the Thayer family. Below: Lt. Col. Floyd J. Carter and his wife, Artherine.**

I guess pioneers in any change-the-world struggle don’t get to the front lines without having a little bit of a bodacious rebel in them, somewhere.

But for all the endurance, and accomplishment, and rebellious strength … Carter’s section of the Tuskegee Airmen never saw combat. He was in the 477th bombardment group. Never heard of Tuskegee Airmen flying bombers in Europe? It’s because their white commander would never sign them off for combat, even as the crews sat, trained and ready, in Indiana. One hundred and sixty-two of the Tuskegee group were even arrested, 15 received reprimand letters, three were court-martialed, and one even did jail time for an event known as “The Freeman Field Mutiny.” The “mutiny” consisted of the Tuskegee officers (not Col. Carter — he was stationed elsewhere at the time) … walking into the Freeman Air Field officer’s club. As was their right, according to military directives from Washington.

And here’s the really shameful thing. The military records of those men were not cleared until 1995.

Yet here was Col. Carter … his words and expressions showing the marks of humiliation, anger, battles lost and injustice endured, all in a fight for the right to fight and die for his country … proudly wearing his Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, bestowed upon the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007, and admonishing others to devote themselves to service.

A week later, I traveled with a friend to Washington, D.C., where the father of a Naval Academy classmate of his was being awarded — posthumously and belatedly — the Distinguished Flying Cross.

I know, of course, that there have been many acts of bravery in air battles, and that thousands of pilots have given their lives in service to their country. Forty thousand American service personnel gave their lives in Korea, alone. I’ve heard aces talk about their exploits. I’ve seen oodles and oodles of Hollywood movies, including some real tear-jerkers on the subject. But even Men of the Fighting Lady, a film starring Van Johnson that was made about Ed’s classmate’s dad, still doesn’t compare to the real thing.

Men of the Fighting Lady told the story of a young Navy Lieutenant (j.g.) named J. Howard Thayer, who went to the rescue of a fellow pilot who’d been blinded, and had his airplane badly damaged, by flak over North Korea. Thayer joined up on the crippled plane and talked the blinded pilot back more than 100 miles, to a safe, wheels-up landing on a dirt strip in allied territory.

The movie changed a few details. They had Thayer flying a Grumman F9F Panther, instead of the Douglas AD-4 Skyraider he was actually flying, and had the pilots landing on a carrier, instead of a dirt airstrip. But Hollywood can be forgiven for that, seeing as Thayer successfully rescued a second pilot, six months later, in a Panther jet. And that Lt. Commander Thayer was killed nine years later attempting to guide a third pilot — his commanding officer, who’d suffered a complete electrical failure in his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk at night over the Mediterranean — back to a safe carrier landing.

The actions of Lt. Thayer were impressive enough to inspire a major Hollywood movie. But somehow, the events slipped through the cracks, in terms of any official recognition of them. “Everyone assumed he’d gotten a medal for it,” one Navy officer told me at the ceremony. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when an Australian historian began looking into the incident, that it came to light that Lt. Thayer had never been formally commended for his acts of valor.

The Navy Museum Annex at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., doesn’t have the glamour of a Hollywood set. But it had something far more powerful. It had Lt. Thayer’s widow, and his three now-grown children — one of whom was only 10 days old when Thayer left for what would turn out to be his final tour of duty. It had a couple of Lt. Thayer’s squadron-mates, who still recalled the Skyraider incident. And it had Ken Schechter–the blinded pilot whose life Thayer saved.

There were admirals, uniforms, proclamations, and all the trappings of military honor. But all of that paled next to seeing Thayer’s widow, Shirley, quiet and dignified, but with tears still running down her face, all these years later. Or the family, proud but reminded again of their loss, gathered around her in support. Or Thayer’s squadron mate and friend Lou Stokes who put the grand heroism into the real-life terms that, I suspect, is how heroism generally happens.

“Ken got in trouble, and Howard helped him out. That’s what we did,” he said, by way of explanation. As if there were no other choice.

And then, just as the ceremony was coming to a close, Ken Schechter motioned that he wanted to speak. He has only partial sight, still, and he moves slowly, these days. But he made his way to the podium, looked fiercely at us all, and said, “I have just four words to say. ‘God Bless Howard Thayer.’ ” He paused, and his voice broke. “And thank you for my life.” He choked up as he went back to his seat. So did the rest of us.

I looked at Ken’s wife, sitting in the front row with him. A wife he was able to grow old with because of Howard Thayer. Over a span of a life that Thayer himself never got to have or enjoy, because he was trying to help someone else get home alive. I looked at the Thayers, and then at the Schechters. And the power of sacrifice and heroism hit home in a way no medal, statistics or formal telling of the tale could ever manage. Even with all of Hollywood’s cinematic skill.

Courage has many faces. It can consist of enduring humiliation, fighting injustice, and living a life with dignity and honor despite the inequity of your lot. It can consist of putting someone else’s life ahead of your own. It can consist of simply going on … raising three children alone after losing your husband, because he tempted fate one too many times in an effort to save another pilot in trouble.

I know all of these things. I’ve known them for years. But in a single week, I learned them all over again. In a way that I will not soon forget.


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