Hampton VA boasts an Air and Space Center well worth a visit. There are numerous
exhibits, an I-Max theater, a section dedicated to the development of flight (Kitty Hawk
and the Orville Brothers, Louis Bleriot etc.) and much more but I got stuck somewhere
between the Tuskegee Airmen Exhibit and the Crew of a Liberator, aka a B24, and not to
be confused with the B-17 or “Flying Fortress!”.
And there I spent my morning. The rest of the Center will to wait for a follow up visit next
There is more to The Tuskegee Airmen than I can write about in my short post so the
interviews I listened to only involved one of the fighter squadrons. These young men had to
train harder and longer than their white counterparts to prove themselves but those who
made it ranked amongst the best pilots there were. I read their stories, I watched the
DVD’s, an interview with one of the widows as well as a fascinating talk by the son of one
of the original airmen. And yes, I will now definitely order “Red Tails” from Netflix.
Next to the Tuskegee Airmen display there was a scale drawing of the B24 and an
interactive system where you could listen to the various crew members, now elderly men,
who had served as crew.
The Liberator carried 10 crew. I listened to each one describe their duties, some of their
experiences and thought of Winston Churchill’s remark, “Never was so much owed by so
many to so few.”
These were men in their late teens, early twenties when they served. Death was something
that happened to other people. As one remarked, ”we never said, ’good luck,’ “we’d say,
‘see you in Sweden’ or ‘see you in Denmark.’”
Thus implying that if they got shot down or had to land, it would be in a friendly place.
They wore thick protective clothing as the temperatures at flying altitude could drop to 40
degrees below. Their clothing was electrically heated but if the heating system on the plane
failed, they were at 40 below with only their clothing to keep them warm.
If one could see any humor in the situation it would be the story the radio operator told.
They had to wear these very thick gloves which mean it was slow going when transmitting.
The Navy guys transmitted at four times the speed of the Liberator operator. To quote,
“we banged out the letters!”
One recalled that on landing safely the Red Cross Nurses would offer coffee and donuts
followed by another group (can’t remember who) offering them a “ nip or two.”
The pilot explained the danger of flak (anti-aircraft fire).They could not break formation
or take any evasive action so either they were lucky and got through or they did not.
The last interview I listened to was that of the tail gunner. He was 18 when he joined but
still remembered how small the space was back there (you couldn’t weight more than 150
lbs but at 125 lbs he didn’t have a problem.) It was bitterly cold and it was lonely. He was
truly on his own.
And finally he told the story of how six of them were flying formation when one plane to his
left was shot down and then the one to his right. This was it, he thought to himself, his time
had come. But then two Tuskegee Mustangs appeared, took care of their attackers,
escorted them to safety, then waved and peeled off. He never saw them again, didn’t know
who they were but knew he owed them his life.
United we stand, divided we fall…….
But he says, that night when you went into your hut you had to face those empty bunks.
I’d hugged my marine that morning, this museum visit was later the same day. I’m still
internalizing all that I saw and heard.