Tuskegee Airmen describe discrimination experiences - FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

Tuskegee Airmen describe discrimination experiences in and out of the military

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

They are Tuskegee Airmen, three of the 14,000 men and women who were part of a war department experiment to see if African Americans could fight and hold their own in combat.

89-year-old Master Sergeant James Sheppard was a ground crew chief, trained to be a mechanic on every type of airplane used in the European and African theaters of war.

90-year-old retired Major (back Then 2nd Lt.) Richard Jennings was a navigator and bombardier.

And, 91-year-old Daniel Keel was a flight officer, who was also a navigator, bombardier, and a pilot.

Stories like theirs were immortalized in the 2012 LucasFilm titled "Red Tails." The color red was assigned to the 332 Fighter Squadron by the War department in the 1940s.

"We drew red and it wasn't our idea. In fact we resisted it, but had to do it," said Sgt. James Sheppard.

"For the movies it made us famous. Not in real life," added Sheppard. "You could look at it two ways. You make yourself a bigger target painted a bright red like that. You make yourself a good target won't you? Bright red up against a blue sky. That was the downside. I think it helped the Germans beam in on us, really. But it wasn't meant for that. It was for identification purposes for commanders and generals."

Flight officer Keel spoke candidly about his experience in a segregated military and said he ran into many obstacles with white officers who did not like Negroes.

Keel, who vividly recalled receiving his navigator wings and being confronted by a Lt. Col. from Texas, said, "He'd tell us, 1, we could not eat in the officer's mess. 2, we could not go to the officer's club. 3, if we go to the theatre we could not sit in the officer's section. 4, if we go to town we had to ride in the back of the bus. That was nothing new to me while I was in the service. I didn't like it but I had to take it."

Major Jennings expressed similar sentiments saying, "That was the situation we had to live with and we lived with it. It was alright. I'd been living with it all my life and I'm still living."

Sgt. Sheppard chimed in saying, "You just went with the program. No riots, nothing like that. No fighting back in the military. You'd end up in Leavenworth. So, you had to deal with it and make the best of it."

And, they made the best of it, while still suffering discrimination even after returning home as heroes.

Sgt. Sheppard explained his return home saying, "…with all the experience I had, I went to the airlines in New York City and they said they would not hire me. Why? Because if a white passenger saw you working out there on a plane, they won't buy tickets and they meant it. And they were not trying to be wise guys. It was true."

Flight officer Keel summed it up by saying, "When the Tuskegee Airmen arrived back home after doing an outstanding job, they were still considered second class citizens by white America.

All three are proud that their accomplishments are now being recognized and they now travel to speak to school children about the history of World War II from their perspective, which isn't in most history books.

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