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Tuskegee pilot shares tales of World War II

FROM STAFF REPORTS

Just months after watching white-hot German tracer bullets dance off his wings over Italy, Charles Dryden went to grab a bite to eat at Walterboro Army Air Field.

He was stopped at the cafeteria door, reminded that his black skin meant he wasn't welcome. A white man brushed past, the white "PW" on his back marking him as a Nazi prisoner of war.

For Dryden, a Tuskegee airman who would retire as a lieutenant colonel, it was "the lowest moment" in a homefront battle to prove blacks could fly.

"We knew one thing: If we failed, if we proved the naysayers right, that would be the end of opportunity for blacks, forever," he said. "We didn't have the luxury of failure. That would've closed the doors."

Blacks had served as fighter pilots in World War I. Barred from the American Army Air Corps, though, they flew under the French flag. American military advisers had decided blacks lacked the intelligence and the courage to fly combat missions.

But with World War II threatening, the Army enlisted its first class of black aviators in 1941 and sent them to the airstrip near Tuskegee, Ala. Dryden was accepted into the second class and earned his wings eight months later.

Fated to fly

As a baby, Dryden used to tear up paper and fling the pieces into the air, mumbling what his mother translated as "airplane." He pieced together model propeller planes and devoured stories about the brash heroes of World War I.

The reality of Tuskegee lacked that glamour. The recruits trained in battered, second-hand P-40 fighters that leaked oil, Dryden said. Pilots sometimes had to bail out of malfunctioning training planes.

The Army Air Corps deployed Dryden to Casablanca on April 2, 1943. Within a month, he was flying raids in new P-40s against the German army in Italy.

Over the coast of Sicily he watched as tracer bullets glanced off his wing and realized a German fighter was tailing him. He turned around in time to see puffs of smoke -- "like cotton balls" from the German's cannon.

"One of them hit my wing -- Bang! -- and the airplane sort of shuddered," he said. "I was in serious trouble. I said a little prayer."

Swarmed by four German fighters, Dryden and another American plane limped back to their base. When he landed, Dryden discovered a grapefruit-sized hole in his wing.

Dryden's return

Dryden returned to America after five months of fighting to teach combat tactics at Tuskegee. He found bases commanded by Jim Crow -- "certainly separate, but never equal." He watched enemy prisoners go where black combat veterans could not.

"That's the way it was," he said. "It was America at her worst. I always have to fight for my composure: It's like a reflex, the tears of rage begin to build up.

"There was no sign that America would come to her senses. I never expected there'd be anything like desegregation in my lifetime. I hoped for it. I prayed for it."

Facing down the discrimination and stereotypes, the 992 black pilots who graduated from Tuskegee flew "on days the birds weren't flying," Dryden said. They cut the rope that separated the white section in the movie theater from the "colored" section. They tried to eat lunch in the all-white cafeteria or visit the all-white officers' clubs.

Dryden was court-martialed and fined $330 for "buzzing" his plane low over the town of Walterboro and its base after he was stopped at the cafeteria door.

The squadron that Dryden flew with in Europe posted a perfect record: In more than 200 escort missions, "we never, never, never lost a friendly bomber to enemy fire." White bomber pilots still stop Dryden after a lecture to praise the Tuskegee pilots who stayed with their wounded plane.

President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. The Tuskegee airmen, along with the thousands of support crew members, had helped prove the stereotypes wrong.

"We were able to open the doors to so many people -- as astronauts, as commercial pilots, as Air Force pilots," Dryden said. "I have a fierce sense of pride for what we accomplished.

"I would not change places with anyone in history for what we experienced as Tuskegee airmen."

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