Former Tuskegee Airman, POW tells life story at senior center

By Shaun Byron, The Romeo Observer, 1 February 2006

Standing before a crowded room, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson quipped he felt like a mosquito at a nudist colony.

“I know what I've gotta do, but I don't know where to start,” he said to a laughing audience.

Jefferson is among the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first black combat pilots.

His experiences have recently been put into a book, called “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: The Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW.”

Copies of the book quickly sold out at a speaking engagement, held Thursday, Jan. 5, at the Washington Senior Center.

Jefferson's book gives an intimate account of facing racism during World War II and his experiences as a decorated pilot and prisoner of war.

The Tuskegee Airmen began in 1941, in Alabama. The federal government had started mandating that colleges for black people start training men for aerial combat.

Most of the training was conducted by the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute, a school founded by former slave and emancipator Booker T. Washington in 1881.

The Tuskegee Airmen completed a total of 15,500 missions and earned the distinction of never losing a U.S. bomber to enemy fire while flying under their escort.

In all, they earned more than 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, one Silver Star, two Soldier Medals and one Legion of Merit medal.

Jefferson, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1942, was one of the 32 Tuskegee Airmen from the 332nd Fighter Group to be shot down during World War II.

His humorous anecdotes and tales of unjustified racism had the audience's total attention.

Their eyes never left Jefferson as he told stories while wearing a brown leather flight jacket with patches decorating the sleeves and back, and clutching a model Red Tail P-51, similar to the one he flew.

To be considered for the program, he said, a black man had to have a college education.

A white man could be a high school drop out, however.

“Chuck Yager, a helluva pilot. But a high school dropout,” he told the congregation of World War II veterans, history buffs and high school kids.

While training at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, near Mount Clemens, Jefferson said he and his fellow officers weren't allowed into the officers' club.

Following an attempt to enter the club peacefully, he said the black enlisted men and women were transferred to another base in the following days and falsely accused of rioting.

After completing his training and achieving the rank of second lieutenant, Jefferson was among several other pilots who were escorting bombers in Europe.

With a little more than 18 missions successfully completed, Jefferson said he was strafing some radar stations on Aug. 12, 1944, off the southern coast of France, when a shell came through the entire cockpit of the plane.

“It was three days before the invasion and the damn shell came up through the floor, right in front of the stick,” he said.

As the plane spiraled out of control, Jefferson said he desperately tried to figure out how to eject from the plane.

When asked if he was frightened, Jefferson replied: “You were so damn busy doing what you had to do, you didn't have time to be scared.”

“You don't get scared until two days later when you think about it. Then you start shaking.”

After a struggle to get the cockpit open and released from his seat, Jefferson landed in enemy territory.

For about a month his family in Detroit thought he had been killed, until the American Red Cross sent them a telegram informing them he was captured.

From Aug. of 1944 to April of 1945, Jefferson said he lived in German prison camps.

The Nazis, he said, knew what grades he got in school and even how much his father paid in taxes on the family home.

And while they were given only half of the American Red Cross parcels they rightfully deserved, he said they were treated with respect.

“I was treated better in Germany than I was below the Mason Dixie line,” he said.

As the Russian army began to put pressure on the Nazis, Jefferson said they were forced to walk 80 kilometers in the freezing January weather to another prisoner camp, near Munich.

In April, Gen. George Patton's Third Army liberated that camp.

Jefferson said while he was glad to see his fellow American servicemen, it was their discovery of a nearby concentration camp that disgusted him.

He witnessed tables covered with hair, which would be used in seat cushions, pairs of glasses littering tables and suitcases stacked in rooms.

The bodies of Nazi victims, he said, were stacked like cordwood.

“You know how in the summertime when someone has a barbecue, you can smell it throughout the neighborhood,” Jefferson said. “Well, you could smell it an hour before you got to it because the ovens were still warm.”

“Talk about man's inhumanity to man.”

While the years have passed, and fewer World War II veterans survive every year, the Tuskegee Airmen continue to gather for conventions.

“Many of us are doing what I do today, going to schools and talking to high school kids,” he said.

Jefferson continued to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves and was eventually honored with the Purple Heart for being shot down.

He served as a school teacher in Detroit, where he continues to live to this day.

At the completion of his speech, the audience gave him a rousing applause.

As attendees clamored to shake his hand and have their picture taken with him, Catherine Anderson and her son, Samuel Anderson of Romeo, stood back waiting for the crowd to disperse.

Samuel, who hopes to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, was holding a folder with several pages filled with the autographs of veterans.

Samuel said he collects them, aspiring to serve his country with the same kind of honor.

Catherine said Jefferson's speech was inspiring.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “I pulled Samuel out of school to come see him.”

Meanwhile, Greg Smith of Shelby Township was one of the several others awaiting a chance to talk to Jefferson.

“I just loved it,” he said. “It's great to hear somebody talk about World War II.”