Remember: 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!
The Tuskegee Airmen Community Overcame Adversity Together
Irma Cameron Dryden (1920-2020)
Born and raised in New York City, Irma Cameron aspired to be a doctor. But when the nearby medical school was full, she chose to become a nurse and graduated from Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in 1942. As the United States entered World War II, Irma volunteered for the Army, and soon found herself on the way to Tuskegee, Alabama to serve at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Irma had never experienced the racial segregation of the American South, and had to persevere as she adjusted to the harsh realities. Even on the train to Alabama, Irma and two fellow Black nurses were told to eat in a curtained-off area in the dining car. Irma chose not to eat. “I had never been exposed to anything so humiliating,” she later said. “But something came out of this humiliation – I knew I could overcome anything and I could help whoever I’m with. Like these young men, I knew I could give them strength, and I did.”
As part of the segregated Army, Irma and the other Black nurses in Tuskegee cared for the young men then training as the first Black pilots in the U.S. military. It was then that Irma met and fell in love with fighter pilot Charles Dryden, an early graduate of the program. They married in November 1943, the first military wedding in Tuskegee.
After concluding her service, Irma helped establish a new medical lab in New Jersey, where she worked for decades. She and her husband ultimately separated, and Irma spent her last years in Georgia near her family. One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen nurses, Irma passed away in September, 2020 at the age of 100.
I’m proud of the fact I was able to withstand the feelings I had to make sure the young men got the care and attention they needed … We knew we were going to overcome the prejudices and all we were faced with.
George Watson, Sr. (1920-2017)
Tuskegee Airman George Watson, Sr. was born in Wildwood, New Jersey. At age 21, shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor, which drew America into the war, he enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Stationed in Tuskegee, Alabama, he helped form the 332nd Fighter Group and the 96th Air Service Group, and served as supply sergeant and support personnel.
Shipping overseas as a ground crewman, he served in Germany, Turkey, Iran, and Italy. While in Naples, he was injured when his encampment came under attack, and because he feared an injury would send him to a hospital and remove him from his unit, he didn’t report it. It would be 66 years before the record was corrected so that he could receive the distinguished Purple Heart for those wounded by enemy action.
Following his service in the war, Watson founded an American Legion Chapter named after the late Captain Robert B. Tresville in Lakewood, New Jersey, and worked there as a tech sergeant at McGuire Air Force Base. In 1969, Watson retired from the service, and settled into civilian life.
In the years since he has authored two books – Memorable Memoirs, about his life before and during World War II, and A Salute to the Beginning, which recounts his memories of being a ground crew member maintaining the sophisticated aircraft of the Tuskegee pilots. In addition to his Purple Heart, Watson was awarded an Honorary Three Star General, a World War II Victory Medal and Air Force Commendation Medal. He and other Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in Washington D.C. on March 29, 2007.
We went through it, we suffered through it, but you never give up. That’s our motto, ‘don’t ever give up.’
Nancy Leftenant-Colon (b. 1920)
One of twelve children, Nancy Leftenant-Colon and her siblings were taught by their parents to always give their best. Six of them would serve in the military, including Samuel, a Tuskegee Airmen killed-in-action over Europe in 1945. Joining the Army herself, Nancy Leftenant-Colon helped blaze a new trail for African-American nurses in the U.S. Army.
Training as a nurse at the Lincoln School for Nurses in New York City, Leftenant-Colon joined the U.S. Army as reservist during World War II.
Excluded from the regular Army Nurse Corps because of their race, Leftenant-Colon and her fellow Black nurses were assigned to an Army hospital at Fort Devens, Massachusetts where they treated wounded soldiers. The pressure was intense, as the women were subject to racial scrutiny and expected to prove their worthiness in a role newly available to African-Americans.
When the U.S. military began racial integration in 1948, Leftenant-Colon applied for the regular Army Nurse Corps, and was accepted, becoming the first African-American in that unit. She later transferred to the Air Force and traveled the world as a flight nurse, served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and retired as a major. Having married a Tuskegee Airman, she continued nursing at a local high school, and later became the first woman to be president of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.
I saw a picture of an Army nurse with her cape. She looked so good – straight and tall. I wanted to do my part.
Mildred Carter (1921-2011)
Before World War II, Mildred Hemmons had been a student at the Tuskegee Institute and worked in the office of the school’s new civilian pilot training program. When she saw young men applying to learn to fly, she decided to do the same, and became the first Black woman in Alabama to receive a pilot’s license.
Mildred had been flying the day Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Institute and flew with chief instructor C. Alfred Anderson. She later had the chance to meet the First Lady, and they discussed Roosevelt’s own ambition to fly.
She soon met her husband-to-be, Herbert Carter, another student and pilot at Tuskegee. They’d court in the air, meeting in separate planes in the Alabama skies, waving and blowing kisses to each other. They married one month after Herbert graduated cadet flight training with the Army Air Forces, becoming one of the earliest Tuskegee Airmen.
During the war, Mildred attempted to apply for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a group of women aviators ferrying aircraft for the Army Air Forces. She received a response from program director Jackie Cochran that Black women were not being accepted into the group at that time. But Mildred Carter didn’t stop flying, and remained a pilot for decades.
This whole community of Tuskegee was waiting and watching. It was as if they were a part of the family, and it was a family.