A found $5 bill in an Iowa field paid for Luther Smith’s first plane ride in the 1930s – a life-changing moment for the Black American teenager that led him to get his pilot’s license and ultimately become one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
His service inspired his son, Gordon Luther Smith, to become an expert on the fighter group, and he is bringing his “Legend of the Tuskegee Airmen” presentation to Roanoke on Jan. 6 at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture.
“There were 355 pilots who actually deployed with the 332nd,” said Smith, the fighter group designation for the Tuskegee Airmen. “There are only three left today. There is just not a lot of opportunity for us to hear firsthand exactly what they did, what their accomplishments were, what their legacy has been, so I always end my talks by saying this is part of our history, this is something we can be very proud of.” (Editor’s note: We’re since told there are four).
Admission to Gordon Smith’s talk is free for students with an ID. For all others there’s a suggested donation of $25. More information at harrisonmuseum.com.
While Gordon Smith regales audiences throughout the U.S. on the Tuskegee Airmen (he graduated Princeton University with a degree in American history), his day job is executive director of the Commercial Banking Group for JP Morgan Chase in New York. Earlier this year, a friend of the Harrison Museum heard him speak in New York and invited him to Roanoke, said board president Charles Price.
Price has heard of only four men from the Roanoke area who were Tuskegee Airmen. But the unit’s story is part of the larger narrative of African American struggle and perseverance – from slavery to Reconstruction, Jim Crow to Civil Rights justice – that the Harrison Museum strives to tell.
“The situations of what they went through,” said Price, “it happened not just in Tuskegee but here.”
At the start of World War II, U.S. armed forces were segregated, and Black Americans were not even permitted to fly military aircraft. But they could get a pilot’s license after Congress approved the Civilian Pilot Training Program as the menace of war began to loom in Europe.
Among those aspiring pilots, says Gordon Smith, was his father. Born in 1920 as one of nine children to a Methodist minister, Luther caught the flying bug after finding a $5 bill near his Iowa home while on a walk with his brother. He talked his brother into using the treasure to buy a seat for a short flight at a nearby airfield.
A seat was all $5 would buy. His brother in his lap, Luther sailed into the skies and in some ways never returned to Earth.
After his maiden flight he got odd jobs at the airfield and eventually earned his license. In 1943 he leapt at the opportunity to join the 332nd Fighter Group, which trained near Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, the famed historically Black college first at its founding by Booker T. Washington.
Commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the 332nd was given secondhand P-51 Mustangs that each had different markings and insignia. The Tuskegee Airmen wanted to give their planes a unique, unifying designation, said Gordon Smith, but all they had at their disposal was red paint. So they painted the tails red, setting the stage for the courageous nickname they’d later earn.
But first they had to overcome inherent discrimination.
In January 1944, the 332nd deployed to Naples, Italy, but didn’t see much meaningful action until the commander of the 15th Air Force Group bombers, weary of heavy casualties on bombing runs to Germany, confronted Davis and asked, “Are your boys ready to take on the mission of flying fighter escort.”
To which Davis famously replied: “My men are indeed ready.”
Gordon Smith concludes, “So at that point in June 1944, everything changed and now they were going to be given front-line responsibility.”
Their training and discipline, said Gordon Smith, resulted in low losses for the bombers they protected on missions to Germany, earning them their “Red Tails” and “Red Tail Angels” nicknames.
This is the history that Gordon Smith will share Jan. 6 at the Harrison Museum: the pilots’ training and day-to-day life, their extraordinary military record, and the post-war prejudice they faced when commercial airlines wouldn’t hire them.
He’ll also share his father’s personal service as a Tuskegee Airman: his 133 combat missions, and his fateful final mission on Oct. 13, 1944, when he was shot down, injured and taken prisoner.
“He had a lot of stories, a lot of information to provide,” said Gordon, “and over the years it has been my pleasure and privilege to be invited to various venues around the country to share that history.”