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Vol. LlX, No. 6
March 23, 2007
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Fighting To Be a Fighter Pilot
Tuskegee Airman Headlines NIH Black History Salute

On the front page...

Tuskegee Airman Hiram Mann

The third time was the charm for Hiram Mann's dream. In 1940, he was a young man with a year or so of college behind him. Tensions between the U.S. and its foreign enemies were heating up. Mann felt a war was unavoidable. But he was also a newlywed whose bride threatened to shoot off his toe if he even considered enlisting in the seemingly inevitable conflict. Even that didn't stop Mann from yearning to be a fighter pilot. He wrote to the Army asking to attend flight school. The Army replied "in no uncertain terms," Mann recalled: "There are no facilities to train Negroes to fly in any branch of the American military service." Twice more he'd appeal for combat flight training before he got his wish. More than 65 years later, Mann remembers like it was yesterday. A man doesn't forget being rejected to serve his country simply because of his race.

Continued...

Mann with NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, Capt. Janelle Harden (whose mother, Dr. J. Taylor Harden, works at NIA), Col. Nathan Thomas, Kay Johnson Graham of OEODM and (seated) Lt. Col. Hiram Mann and Kristina Soper, staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).
Black History Month observance participants include (standing, from l) NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, Capt. Janelle Harden (whose mother, Dr. J. Taylor Harden, works at NIA), Col. Nathan Thomas, Kay Johnson Graham of OEODM and (seated) Lt. Col. Hiram Mann and Kristina Soper, staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

Despite the fact that Mann is one of fewer than 500 black pilots who flew combat missions in World War II, it's hard to find his story — or the story of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen — in most American history books. Such gaps in knowledge get closed usually only once a year, in February. That's why the nation still needs to celebrate Black History Month, said Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women's health. She hosted "Telling Our Story: Across the Generations, African Americans' Service to Country," a Black History Month observance sponsored Feb. 28 by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management.

The program gathered Mann and representatives from two other generations of African Americans who have served in the U.S. military to tell their stories of achievement.

For a long time before 1940, Mann recounted, the U.S. military remained resolute about who was qualified to wear an American uniform. After all, a 1925 Army War College study of "Negroes in combat" had concluded that they lacked intelligence, ambition and courage; they were unsuitable to serve in the military, much less as fighter pilots. That document was used to deny not only flight training, but also many other potential leadership posts to African Americans in the U.S. armed forces.

Nevertheless, Mann said, civil rights leaders of the era and several officials in Congress began to push for black pilot trainees. "Give our boys a chance to fly," became a mantra for a small, but persistent cadre. Under pressure in 1941, the Army set up an all-black pursuit squadron to train for combat duty. The "Red-Tail Angels" (named for the markings on their aircraft) were born.

In a photo from the World War II era, Mann fulfills his dream of flying combat missions for his country.
In a photo from the World War II era, Mann fulfills his dream of flying combat missions for his country.

"Tuskegee Army Air Field was built as an experiment destined to fail," Mann explained. "They built it trying to prove that we could not handle high-technical equipment. But we fooled them. We turned that adversity into victory."

Mann's second appeal to train was rejected for two more reasons: he was married (pilots at the time were required to be single) and he only had 1 year of college (flight trainees needed a minimum of 2 years). By 1942, however, the military needed pilots more than it needed to uphold strict academic and marital standards.The Army granted Mann's third request. Despite poor treatment by white instructors and pilots during the training, he graduated from the TAAF flight program as a single-engine combat fighter pilot in June 1944. He went on to fly several aircraft, including the P-51 Mustang, P-40 Warhawk and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes and a C-45 Expediter cargo plane. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel with more than 21 years of service. He also eventually earned bachelor's and master's degrees.

Only 992 men completed TAAF pilot training, with 450 serving combat missions. The Tuskegee Airmen (as they came to be called in 1972) are known for never having lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. On Mar. 29, the group will receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

According to U.S. Army Col. Nathan Thomas (ret.), the Tuskegee Airmen not only paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military, but also accomplished much more.

An Alabama native with a front-row seat at several historic events of the civil rights era, Thomas was among the 600 protesters beaten back by police in the Mar. 7, 1965, Selma-to-Montgomery march. Within a week, legislation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress.

"I had already become a warrior in many respects and I appreciated the fact that gentlemen like Col. Mann had already set the stage for me because they had to fight for their civil rights as well as their silver wings [a pin pilots earn in U.S. Air Force]," said Thomas. "For me that set a pattern for why we could resist all the things that happened in Birmingham [called "Bombingham" by locals who lived through the era] and certainly the things that happened in Selma."

In 2001, Thomas made more history, becoming the first ever African-American lieutenant colonel in Minnesota and in 2005, the state's first black full-bird colonel. His 36-year military career included stints in Vietnam, Panama and the Persian Gulf.

Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women's health, welcomes living legend Mann to the agency's observance of Black History Month.
Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women’s health, welcomes living legend Mann to the agency's observance of Black History Month.

"This is a brief history of the Tuskegee Airmen and many others who paved the way for young African-American officers like me," said Capt. Janelle Harden, a Tuskegee Airmen Inc., scholarship recipient now assigned to the National Reconnaissance Office. "I was able to earn a bachelor's.go on to complete my [U.S. Air Force] commission and serve my country with pride.On behalf of my generation, I would like to thank those who made it possible for me to wear this uniform and to continue to serve my country and make black history."

NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, who gave closing remarks at the observance, quipped that he hopes Mann will visit NIH again to discuss not only his history-making career but also his 66 years of happy marriage.

"As we heard from Col. Thomas about how the Tuskegee Airmen led the way for other African Americans to serve in responsible positions in the country," Katz concluded, "I couldn't help but reflect on [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell, [current Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice and also the excitement of even thinking about [Senator] Barack Obama running for president of this country. I think that's really [due to] the leadership of the Tuskegee Airmen. Some things that must have been unimaginable back in those days we are imagining today. I can only think how exciting it must be for you, Col. Mann, to see those realities come true. On behalf of all of us here at NIH, we do appreciate your coming here and sharing your experiences."

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