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Tuskegee Airmen speak in honor of Veteran’s Day

Justin Tardiff | Monday, November 14, 2005

Three men who broke racial barriers while fighting against Nazi Germany in World War II related their inspiring stories to the Notre Dame community Friday in honor of Veteran’s Day.

Retired Maj. Gen. Lucius Theus, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson and retired Lt. Col Washington DuBois Ross, who served in the Army Air Corps during WWII, drew a crowd to the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library. The men told of their experiences as both blacks and war veterans.

“These airmen broke a lot of barriers and were not expected to succeed. However, they were the only fighter escort squadron in Italy to have never lost a bomber they escorted, a pretty incredible record,” department chair of aerospace studies Col. Michael Zenk said. “We owe them a debt of gratitude not only for serving their country, but also for showing us all how to succeed against huge odds. Each of these three served in the military with distinction and then served their fellow man in the civilian life as well.”

Theus was the first African-American support officer and only the third African-American to be appointed general in the U.S. Air Force. During his 36-year service, he received the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

Theus explained the reasoning behind the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“At that time, it was not possible for an African-American to join the Air Corps or learn to fly military aircraft,” he said. “The Tuskegee experiment would determine once and for all if African-Americans could fly military aircraft.

“From all over our nation, these young men flocked to this program. They trained hard. They exceeded all expectations. They were given dangerous missions deep within Nazi-held territory. They never lost an American bomber that they were escorting to enemy aircraft. They went on to do some other things that seemed improbable, if not impossible,” he said.

Theus also described the purpose of his visit.

“We Tuskegee airmen enjoy getting together with fine young people because you fine young people are indeed the future of America,” he said. “I think it is important to have an understanding of the history of your nation.”

Ross, who served in the Air Force Reserves for 25 years, spoke of his experiences in the 332nd Fighter Group and the 15th Air Force, which included long-range escort missions protecting Allied bombers.

“We were not super-people, we were people just like everybody else,” he said. “We had to work.”

Jefferson related the experience of his plane being shot down by ground fire.

“The shell came up through the floor and out of the canopy,” he said. “You hit your buckle and came out.”

Jefferson was captured by German troops and interred for nine months as a prisoner of war. Although he said he was treated well at the Stalag Luft 3 and Stalag 7a prison camps, Jefferson also said he experienced firsthand the sheer brutality and evil of the conflict.

Upon release, Jefferson said he was told “there’s a place down the road with a whole lot of dead people.”

“We could smell Dachau two miles before we got to it,” he said.

Jefferson, who received the Air Medal, Air Force achievement medal, Prisoner of War Medal and the Air Force Presidential unit citation, stated his opinion on the brutality of war.

“War is hell. In some aspects it’s glorious. But basically, it only comes out to those that survive,” he said.

Jefferson also gave advice to young people that he said is often difficult for them to hear.

“This is the best country in the world,” he said. “You are here, why in the heck don’t you learn how to join the system? If you are going to be dumb, stupid and ignorant and refuse to get an education, don’t cry and get a bellyache. Do what you have to do to the best of your ability.”

Lyle Summerix, a representative of American Legion Post 51 who arranged the visit, said he greatly appreciated the Airmen’s dedication.

“The Airmen proved conclusively that African Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft,” he said. “Their achievements, together with the men and women who supported them, paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.”