Two “Tuskegee Airmen” shared memories of their roles, seven decades past, in the U.S. military’s first desegregated combat aviation units in a Feb. 14 appearance at the Buckhead 50 Club.
“Who ever heard of black people flying?” Hillard Warren Pouncy Jr. recalled about the pioneering program to train African American combat pilots and ground crews. He trained to be a pilot himself, eventually becoming a bombardier.
Joining Pouncy in speaking to the club at American Legion Post 140 in Chastain Park was Rev. Thomas Bristow, who enlisted in 1946 at age 17 and became supervisor of a shop for aircraft sheet metal.
A program to train the U.S. military’s first African American pilots began in 1941 in Tuskegee, Ala., where there was an airfield and where pilot candidates studied at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). The program began just before U.S. involvement in World War II and continued through and shortly after the war. The units were members of the U.S. Army Air Forces, a precursor of today’s separate Air Force branch.
The U.S. military remained racially segregated throughout the war, but the Tuskegee Airmen are considered historic pioneers whose example helped to end discrimination.
Bristow and Pouncy’s appearance was arranged through the Atlanta chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., an educational nonprofit based in Tuskegee that, among other activities, confirms the identity of those claiming Airmen status.
In the Buckhead appearance, the two Airmen did not directly discuss their experiences with racial discrimination, instead speaking more generally about their lives.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is now widely known, but it wasn’t always that way. Audience member Mel Dowdell said he grew up in the Tuskegee area, but didn’t hear about the Airmen until years later.
One of the recent popularizers of the story was the 2012 film “Red Tails.” Asked about the film’s historical accuracy, Pouncy said, “Now, you must remember, Hollywood is Hollywood,” and cited its main rules as, “Make it lovely and make it make money.” Still, the movie was OK, he allowed.
Pouncy, 95, has seen a lot of real history, including “a time when an airplane [would] fly over, everybody would stop and look up.”
That went double for the first Tuskegee pilots, whom Pouncy recalled seeing as he studied at the Institute. “I used to see those guys flying—oooh-wheee!” he said, adding he admired their “spic and span uniforms.”
At age 22, Pouncy was accepted into the program as a pilot. He recalled buzzing his family house in his Vultee BT-13 Valiant training plane and being disappointed when his mother and sister didn’t wave at him. They later told him, “We knew that was you, all right, but we didn’t wave because we thought that thing was going to crash.”
Pouncy said he wasn’t good enough to be a combat pilot and left the training to become a bombardier in B-25 planes. He eventually retired from the military as a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
He shared stories from other eras of his eventful life. His parents couldn’t read, he said, but he was determined to get an education and earned a doctorate in chemistry, working for Union Carbide for decades. Later, he worked in Saudi Arabia for years in the oil industry and shared tales of his surprise about the segregation of women there.
Bristow indicated that he wanted to speak only briefly, and he did not take audience questions. He mentioned that he once served as a caddy for legendary pro golf Sam Snead, and spoke about his various military postings prior to his retirement as a sergeant.
Atlanta City Councilmember Kwanza Hall, a candidate for mayor, was among those in attendance.
“It’s always impressive to see legacy organizations like the Buckhead 50 Club holding their own and continuing to be a critical part of Atlanta’s fabric,” Hall said in an interview after the meeting. The Airmen in particular “need to be on the regular circuit,” Hall said, adding that their stories were important to him personally, as his family is from Alabama and includes members who served in the military.
The Buckhead 50 Club is a social and civic organization celebrating its 85th year. It’s an invitation-only and men-only group, though the Feb. 14 meeting was open to couples for Valentine’s Day. The group is seeking member candidates; for more information, call 404-667-4762 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.