Nearly 1,000 pilots and some 14,000 personnel served as Tuskegee Airmen between 1941 and 1949. These brief profiles explore the lives of only a select few. There are many more Tuskegee Airmen stories to learn!
For the Tuskegee Airmen, Adversity Came in More Than One Form
Howard Arthur Tibbs (1919-1986)
The grandson of a Civil War veteran, Howard Arthur Tibbs grew up in Salem, Ohio. At the age of 13, he received a Conn saxophone from his parents and became a dedicated musician. He graduated from Salem High School in 1937 where he played football and ran track & field. In 1943, Tibbs learned that African-American fellow citizens were applying to join the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) to fly planes and serve the nation.
Tibbs initially aspired to become a pilot, but the program had a high wash-out rate (ca. 70%), and Tibbs was denied the opportunity to continue training due to segregation policies. He continued as an enlisted serviceman, and learned photography and aerial reconnaissance. Tibbs was assigned to the 619th Bombardment Squadron, part of the first bomber group consisting of Black pilots and crews. As a crew member aboard a B-25 twin-engine bomber, he trained across the United States, with duties of taking aerial photographs and conducting analysis. Tibbs also played tenor saxophone in officers’ bands and for USO shows, joining noted musicians such as Duke Ellington onstage.
In March of 1945, Tibbs was stationed at Indiana’s Freeman Field. He and his fellow African-American servicemen struggled to endure the harsh treatment of a segregated USAAF. Tibbs wrote his mother in the spring of 1945, explaining that “it is a pity…to be defending the welfare of the country and yet it really amounts to upholding just the injustices which contradict all that we are supposedly here to destroy in this war effort.” Just weeks later, he witnessed Black servicemen on the base stage a protest resulting in the arrest of over 100 officers of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
After the war, Tibbs attended Youngstown State University, married his wife Betty, and raised four sons in Ohio. He spent over two decades working for the Internal Revenue Service, and retired as deputy auditor in his local county. His son Philip remembered him as always “fair-minded and a great inspiration.” After suffering a second heart attack, Howard Tibbs passed away in 1986.
In 2007, President George W. Bush collectively awarded the Tuskegee Airmen/women the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. Howard Tibbs received a tribute from the U.S. Senate in the Congressional Record to “celebrate the life and sacrifice of this great Ohioan on the occasion of his posthumous award of the Congressional Gold Medal (Bronze Replica).”
To this day, Tibbs’ family continues to honor his legacy, and are working to name a street and the U.S. Post Office in his honor in his hometown of Salem, Ohio. “Give each day your best,” Tibbs was known to say, “and the best is bound to come back to you.”
You Mother, nor I, nor my children, if I am fortunate to have any, shall not see cooperation, but I’m firm in my belief that one generation will see it when another generation decides that race will no longer be cause and cause alone for all this pure stupidity.
Charles A. Lane (1925-2013)
Charles A. Lane grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and had a passion for airplanes during his childhood. With the start of World War II, he began training as an Army Air Forces fighter pilot at just 18 years old.
Arriving in Europe early in 1945, Lane flew 26 missions. Flying his P-51 Mustang nicknamed “Meatball Rap,” he became wingman to Hugh James White (1922-1979), a fellow native of St. Louis. During one attack on a ground position, Lane was exposed to enemy fire and managed to safely return to base, his aircraft peppered with bullet holes. But Hugh White was shot down, and survived as a prisoner of war.
During another mission, Lane and his group encountered a German train that was suspected of carrying French prisoners-of-war. Aiming at the locomotive, they were surprised when suddenly three of the boxcars revealed hidden anti-aircraft guns. The squadron commander was able to stop the train successfully, but Lane was engulfed in flack. “I was so scared…I just shook,” he remembered. “I couldn’t fly the airplane. I just trimmed it up and let it fly itself. Just made sure it was level and climbing. And I had a long talk with myself when I got home. The guy in front of me got shot down. The guy behind me got shot down… Well they got to get me…but it didn’t happen.”
After the war, Lane and his fellow Black servicemen returned home to the United States. Arriving at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia, they were ordered to a racially segregated area. “We ran into bias, prejudice again,” he later explained. “Here we just left the war and that was a letdown.”
Lane decided to go back to school, but was recalled into the Armed Forces during the Korean War. He’d remain in the service for over two decades. In the 1960s, Lane’s wife, Betty, tragically died of cancer, and the veteran raised their three children on his own. Lane was a longtime resident of Omaha, Nebraska where he received the “Living the Dream” award from the city.
“We wanted to fly, we wanted to fight to prove that we could do it,” Lane remembered of his World War II experiences. “We did it because we supported these United States. It was part of our heritage. This is still our country, and I still feel that way.”
I accepted the war at its face-value, but we had some losses that hurt me. We lost 6 men in our class. 14 of us went over, 8 of us came back.
Herbert E. Carter (1919-2012)
Growing up in the American South, Herbert E. Carter entered Tuskegee University before World War II, planning to become a veterinarian and earn his pilot’s license in order to fly between ranches where he could tend to the animals. But when Carter learned of an infamous War College study claiming African-Americans were unfit to fly in combat, he changed his plans.
“That was not only an insult, that was a dare,” Carter would later say. “It was the fact that we had been told that we did not have the smarts or the ability to operate something as complicated as an aircraft.” He joined the new program at Tuskegee that allowed Black men to train to become Army pilots. He’d court his wife-to-be, civilian pilot Mildred L. Hemmons, during training.
Mechanically-inclined, Carter became a rare Tuskegee Airmen to serve as both a pilot and maintenance officer. In the latter role, he helped supervise the upkeep of the squadron aircraft which were maintained by enlisted ground personnel. He worked 14 to 16 hours a day to fulfill his responsibilities.
Carter would ship out to Africa and later Europe with the 99th Fighter Squadron. As maintenance officer and fighter pilot, he flew 77 missions, and even accompanied Lt. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. at a meeting with Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.
After the war, Carter continued his education and remained in the military for over 20 years, flying missions during the Cold War. He’d teach at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base and return to work at Tuskegee University. In 2006, Carter received the Chevalier Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, in recognition of his service during the war.
The Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated much of what holds today, which is you don’t let somebody else determine your state of being and your character. You decide who and what you want to be, and you make adjustments in their world to try to reach your goals.
Watch Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War to Discover More: