The skies have no preference – Black American fighter pilots in the USAF

  • Published
  • By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired) 142nd Wing History Office (Volunteer)
  • 142nd Wing/Historian's Office

You may be watching the currently airing Apple TV+ miniseries “Masters of the Air” about the 100th Bombardment Group (Heavy), the 8th Air Force’s famed “Bloody Hundredth” based in England and the American air campaign against Nazi Germany in World War II.  It will soon feature a story thread with the Tuskegee Airmen P-51 Mustang fighter pilots; 2nd Lt. Alexander Jefferson (portrayed by Branden Cook) was shot down in August, 1944 and became a prisoner of war (episodes 8 and 9 next month) along with captive members of the featured 100th Bomb Group (H). 

Those Black fighter pilots, the “Red Tails” of the 332nd Fighter Group led by Col Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (later the first Black general in the Air Force), endeared themselves to the 15th Air Force bomber crews based in Italy whom they escorted into hostile skies over the Third Reich and who fought for the winged victory in Europe and in doing so fought against prejudice too.

World War I

The prejudice of the last century saw a young Eugene J. Bullard of Georgia travel overseas to Europe to avoid discrimination and make a living.  He eventually joined the French Foreign Legion to fight in World War I.  Bullard enlisted in 1914 and was seriously wounded in the vicious Battle of Verdun in 1916. 

Making a bet during his recuperation, Bullard volunteered and was chosen for flight training with the French Air Service and obtained his pilot license in 1917.  He then saw air combat, flew over 20 combat missions and claimed two German aircraft shot down.  After America entered the war in 1917, Bullard tried to join the Army Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces but was refused; he remained in French service the rest of the war.

Eugene Bullard’s service in World War I went largely unnoticed for many years, and he passed away in 1961 unheralded.  But in 1994 he was posthumously commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the USAF.  In 2019 a bronze statue of Bullard was unveiled at the Museum of Aviation near Robins AFB, Georgia.  He is considered to be the first Black American fighter pilot.

Northeast Asia

Black Americans refused to remain on the ground and have flown and fought for our nation in the years since, in World War II with the Tuskegee Airmen as described above and a short time later in Korea.

But before Korea, and before desegregation was implemented, the Black fighter pilots of the 332nd Fighter Wing won first place at the 1949 USAF gunnery meet at Las Vegas Air Force Base (now Nellis AFB).  They flew the F-47N Thunderbolt against other units equipped with the F-51 Mustang and F-82 Twin Mustang and beat them in the five events held in the 10-day competition and won the meet.     

In this war, Black Americans were no longer segregated, following President Truman’s desegregation order of 1948.  One of the 1949 gunnery meet champions, Lt Col James H. Harvey, III, was the first Black fighter jet pilot to go into combat in Korea.  He flew 126 combat missions in the F-80 Shooting Star. 

A young Lt. named Daniel James, Jr. with the 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron flew the F-51 Mustang and F-80 Shooting Star on over 100 combat missions in the early months of the war.  Lt. Fred Cherry flew the F-84 Thunderjet in the 310th Fighter-Bomber Squadron in 1953, flying over 50 combat missions.

In the early post-Korean War Armistice period, then-Col Davis commanded the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, an F-86 Sabre unit based at Suwon, ready to resume battle if necessary against the communist air forces on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). 

Southeast Asia

In Vietnam, Col Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. went to war again, as an F-4 Phantom II pilot, deputy commander for operations, then vice commander in the famous 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the Wolfpack, where he helped create its reputation as the largest distributor of MiG Parts in the world with Operation Bolo and other aerial combat actions. 

Gen James became the USAF’s first Black four-star general in 1975 and served as commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the USAF’s Aerospace Defense Command (ADC).  He was the first Black four-star general in any branch of the US military. 

As an air defense unit, the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group was gained by ADC upon mobilization.  In fact, Gen James presented the 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron with the Top Gun Award in the F-101 Voodoo fighter-interceptor category at the William Tell 1976 Worldwide Weapons Meet. 

F-105 Thunderchief pilot Maj (later Col) Fred V. Cherry, Sr. went to war again too, and flew in the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) (First to Fight), then-based at Yokota Air Base, Japan.  Like other Airmen in Japan during that time, he was sent on temporary duty (TDY) orders to the war.  After flying more than 50 combat missions, he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 during his squadron’s third deployment to Southeast Asia, and became the first and highest-ranking Black U.S. officer to be held as a prisoner by the North Vietnamese in that long war. 

Seriously injured in the shoot-down, Col Cherry endured a brutal captivity of 2,671 days, including over 700 days in solitary confinement.  He bravely defied enemy pressure and torture which sought to exploit him and his heritage for use against our country before his release with some of the other POWs in 1973. 

Col Cherry was awarded the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism during a particularly difficult period in 1967.  He “…demonstrated his extremely strong personal fortitude and maximum persistence in the face of severe enemy harassment and torture, suffering critical injuries and wounds.”

Cold War

Black fighter pilots served in the Cold War, and I remember serving with F-16C Viper pilot Maj Clyde “Mongo” McKelvey in the 14th TFS (Samurai) at Misawa Air Base, Japan.  He was attached to the squadron from wing safety in the late 1980s, and flew missions in the skies opposite the Soviet Far East ready to respond in the twilight years of the Cold War before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. 

Since the Cold War

Black Americans continue to serve our nation proudly.  Witness Gen Charles Q. Brown, Jr., an F-16 Viper pilot who commanded a fighter squadron, the USAF’s Weapons School, two fighter wings and command tours at US Air Forces, Central Command and Pacific Air Forces.  He became Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 2020 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2023. 

In Oregon

Black Americans first served at Portland Army Air Base during World War II.  In the years after the war, more volunteered to serve in the Oregon Air National Guard as well. 

Oregon’s first Black fighter pilot is Maj Gen Garry C. Dean, USAF (Retired) who first joined the 142nd Fighter Wing as a captain in 1990.  On active duty prior to joining the Guard he flew the F-15 Eagle in the 12th TFS (Chappie James’ squadron in the Korean War) and the 94th TFS (Hat in the Ring).

But not only was he a combat mission ready F-15 Eagle fighter pilot, Maj Gen Dean served as an F-15 mission commander, flight examiner, instructor pilot, functional check pilot, chief of safety and a maintenance staff officer.  He later commanded the 142nd Aircraft Generation Squadron, 123rd Fighter Squadron, became the Oregon National Guard’s first Black colonel, and was vice-commander and then Commander of the 142nd Fighter Wing during the 9/11 period.  Maj Gen Dean was promoted to Brigadier General in 2006, to Major General in 2008, and served in tours of duty overseas in NATO and the National Guard Bureau before he retired in 2015 with over 4,000 flight hours and 40 years of service to our nation.

We can look proudly at the example these Black American fighter pilots set as air warriors who have upheld the Air Force’s core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.  Black, White, Yellow, Red, Brown or any shade in-between, the skies have no preference nor limit when it comes to color, gender, race or creed. 

“The privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them,” said General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.  Any citizen up to the challenge is welcome to join the team and serve all, in community, state and nation in the Oregon Air National Guard.